Issue 169: Canola - is it still the best choice?



For the past two years, on the advice of the industry's seed suppliers, buyers and processors(represented by the Canola Council of Canada) there has been no segregation of the GE canola crop fromthe from the remaining non-GE canola. Given the genetic instability of canola (one of the reasons it hasbeen a leading victim of genetic engineering), it is far from certain that there is not 'confusion' orpollution occurring in the field not just between GE and nearby weeds and other crops, but betweenGE and non-GE canola.

This deliberate confusion extends to the grocery store shelf as an inevitable consequence, making itimpossible to label the product properly and adequately even if the industry thought the public shouldknow what it is buying. This puts people who might otherwise like to buy canola oil in the position ofhaving to turn away from all canola oil that is not labelled as 'certified organic'. There is both 'clean'and organic GE free canola grown in Canada, but to the best of our knowledge there is only one verysmall processor in Calgary handling organic canola. Otherwise it goes to the US for processing. The fourbig processors are part of the problem, since they are so big that segregation is not economically feasible.

Now Canada's canola industry is beginning to recognize it may have a problem on its hands. Itdidn't have to be this way. The canola industry could have said to Monsanto, AgrEvo, PGS and othersa few years ago, Thanks but no thanks. We've worked hard to build the reputation of canola as thehealthiest of edible oils on the basis of the best scientific information available and the public isresponding appropriately at home and abroad. We are doing well in the development of desirableagronomic characteristics such as extended growing range and increased yield. We do not want tojeopardize our achievements. We do not want to mess with your genetic manipulations for corporateprofit. Go sell your wares to the corn producers or the soybean producers. (If they bite, their loss will beour gain.)

Canola itself was not the product of genetic engineering. It was produced by means of traditionalplant selection and breeding, starting with the rapeseed varieties that were already cultivated inCanada and helped along with some newfangled lab technology in the late 1950s and early 1960s :

"Keith Downey's scientific work, itself based on his half-seed technique (which used the simpletechnology of an eye-surgeon's scalpel), was dependent on a more complex technology. The analysis ofa half-seed's worth of oil only became possible when the analytical technology of Gas LiquidChromatography became available to him. Prior to this, it took two pounds of oil and two weeks, ratherthan one half-seed and 15 minutes, to obtain an analysis. (The Rape of Canola, p.9)
But it was not just a matter of technology, contrary to the current ideology of science andbiotechnology; it was also a matter of how the work was financed and how knowledge and informationwere openly shared.

Canada Packers was the major food processor in Canada during those years. Bart Teasdale, whoworked in the Canada Packers lab trying to develop processing techniques that could transformrapeseed into an acceptable oil for margarine and salad oil, described the working environment at thetime:

"The financing of our research was quite informal, surprisingly so ... we were just allowed toproceed as necessary... during the 60s and 70s we really didn't have a budget ... The individual plantmanagers were paying the bills ... and they were willing at that time just to say, Yes, we want rapeseed,we want the improvements made, and if this is part of what you have to do, go ahead and do it." (RoC, p.43)
The overall milieu was one of a self-selected group of government, industry and university men ofhighly similar background working together at a common task, largely unconcerned as to who got thecredit, and, apparently, largely without institutional chauvinism. Their institutions were regarded asthe tools or facilitators of the research, not its proprietors. ... Patent attorneys were not involved andPlant Breeders Rights were not even on the horizon. (RoC,p.36-7)

Burton Craig, who worked in the Prairie Regional Lab in Saskatoon at the time, described how this

affected his early work: "A lot of people found the funding themselves for their particular area, andindustry was very good in providing materials. ... There was no direction. The people who wereinterested got together and went ahead and did it." (RoC,p.37)
Such informality did not last long, regarding either money or information. Keith Downey lamented:
"It used to be that we could say to the outside funders, give us enough to get the hands to run this stuff. We won't worry about supplies or travel, we have that in our basic budget, we just need hands. ... Nowbasically the outside money is running the whole show, and you have to stop and say to yourself, wellhow much outside money is really good, how much control do you have, are we doing technology or arewe doing science. I feel today the proportion of science we are doing is getting smaller and smaller andwe are just responding to technology requirements in the way we are approaching our work." (RoC,p.37-8)

By 1974, the public sector researchers, the processors, and farmers had produced an agronomicallysatisfactory rapeseed with the desired oil and meal characteristics and they began to use the name'canola' to refer to the new varieties meeting their quantifiable standards.

The name 'canola' was initially registered by the Western Canadian Oilseed Crushers Association for reference to oil, meal, protein extractions, seed and seed hulls from or of varieties with 5% or less erucic acid in the oil and three milligrams per gram or less of the normally measured glucosinolates in the meal. The canola trademark was transferred to the Canola Council in 1980. ... In 1986 the canola trademark was amended by the Trade Marks Branch of Consumer and Corporate Affairs to indicate that canola oil must contain less than 2% erucic acid and the solid component of the seed must contain less than 30 micromoles per gram of glucosinolates. In response to a petition from Canada, the United States, in 1985, affirmed low erucic acid rapeseed oil (LEAR oil) as a food substance Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS). The use of 'canola' on food labels in the U.S. was cleared late in 1988. (RoC p.27)

It was not long, however, before Monsanto, opportunistic as always, saw the potential in canola.As Monsanto Canada's director of agricultural research and development, Harvey Glick told me in 1992,the company had been working since 1987 to 'improve' canola. "The first improvement we would liketo bring to canola is a trait that allows it to be sprayed with Roundup herbicide. ... We are not doing ourown breeding, but we are saying to the breeders, you develop the best lines of canola and we will giveyou this gene." I asked Glick if he really meant 'give', and he responded, "We are still discussing thiswith the seed companies." (p.64-5) It is now quite obvious that Monsanto had no intention of givinganything away, and there are now more than 200 varieties of canola on the Canadian market, makingit impossible for any farmer to make an 'informed choice', regardless of how the seeds might be labelled. (Statistics Canada estimates that 14 million acres will be seeded to canola in Canada this year,compared to 13.5 million in 1998, with approximately half of this being transgenic, herbicide tolerant (Roundup Ready) varieties sold by a number of companies, including Cargill.

Now a Reuters news release reports that "Escalating public concern over Genetically ModifiedOrganisms (GMOs) in the food sector has prompted Canada's canola industry to launch an educationprogram and warn that the banning of GMOs would lead to higher costs for canola consumers."

Mike Jubinville of ProFarmer Canada, another farmer advisory service, believes that there maybe a slowdown in the usage of the GE canola when the public outcry hits its peak, but "there is littleturning back now. ...The level of consumer acceptance worldwide may take some time, but it is boundto happen," he said. "And while Europe is the real bastion of resistance, eventually that obstinacy willbe eroded." (source: Reuters, 17/5/99, email)

Of course, there is a elegantly simple solution to all this: ban GE canola altogether. Think of howsimple life would become for the canola growers, processors, and the public if GE were simply out of thequestion.

So if you are feeling obstinate, and not particularly in need of erosion, you might want to shareyour obstinance (and concerns) with store managers, the Canola Council, the Canadian OilseedProcessors Association, or one or more of the distributors of canola oil, such as Sunfresh(Weston/Loblaw/Superstore), Canbra, etc. just use the address on the bottle.

Sample letter or postcard:
Address to:
Canola Council, 400 - 167 Lombard Ave, Winnipeg, MB, R3B 0T6

Canadian Oilseed Processors Association, 2150 - 360 Main St., Winnipeg, MB, R3C 3Z3

As a consumer, I am happy with the quality and versatility of canola oil and am proud of its Canadian origins. However, I want you to know that I do not want to eat genetically engineered food. I am aware that these products are approved by government agencies. Nevertheless, I will not be buying any more canola oil unless it is certified organic or comes from a company with a clear policy and procedure in place to exclude GMOs from their products. I am looking forward to receiving your response on this issue.