Canola, golden beads

FTLComm - Tisdale - Thursday, October 10, 2002
The slogan for this community is: "Tisdale the land of rape and honey." I remember so well when some one attempting to score debating points, or whatever they do in Ottawa, stood in the House of Commons and spoke indignantly and with all the outrage that a politician can muster, about the horrible idea of a town extolling as a virtue "rape." It was my beloved old warrior John Diefenbaker who rose and melted down the fool as he explained the meaning of the slogan.

Rapeseed had been grown for some time as an alternative crop in Western Canada, much the same way Mustard seed was grown as sort of a hedge against low wheat and cereal grain prices. Rapeseed was extremely high in oil and there was a small market for this oil in a variety of chemical uses, but in the fifties and sixties it was not thought of as an edible food for humans. In the late sixties and early seventies there had been some extensive plant breeding projects that had been able to reduce the levels of erucic acid from the plant's seeds and once that had occurred' there was a market for this interesting vegetable oil.

It was substantially different from other oils in its chemical composition and with some processing was soon to become the main oil used to make margarine, cooking oils and a host of other food products.

I remember taking pictures of fields in flower on my way through Tisdale in May of 1973. When we moved to Weekes that fall, it was a whole new agricultural product for me to learn about, as farmers showed me the little dark brown balls that would leave a damp oil spot on your hand after holding a handful. The stems of the plant are tough, so tough that they break down very slowly in a field and impatient farmers often set a match to the straw after harvest. In bales, the straw was strong and durable enough to be used to make temporary dikes along rivers and streams that might overflow in the spring run off.

The crop has become a major cash crop for almost all of Western Canada as well as in much of the Northern United States. The demand for the oil in food products has risen steadily as consumers are definitely concerned about their intake of fats of all kinds and the nature of the oil from this plant had some
particularly positive things about it, compared to other vegetable and animal fats. One of the other factors is that people like fried foods and this oil does the job very well.

It really had been bred so extensively that it was not really the same thing at all as rapeseed and that name was not a good seller, so the name Canola became the title and is now well recognised by consumers.

But right from its commercial successful beginnings, Canola has been saddled with a lot of negative baggage. Though plant breeding is not a negative thing, the public in general is less than enthusiastic about using modern genetic research to create altered life forms. Canola is a hardy tough plant and resists many common problems, but weeds are always a problem to any crop and it was Monsanto who developed, using genetic research, a variety of Canola that was unaffected by Monsanto's weed and soil sterilisation chemical "Roundup."

Monsanto produced this new form of Canola and charges a good price for it, forcing farmers to buy the seed from their resellers. The company has won in court the right to prosecute farmers who use the seed without paying Monsanto.

The greater issue with genetically modified Canola is that it is unacceptable to European consumers and because rapeseed and hence, Canola, was initially a weed, the stuff grows and proliferates very extensively on its own, so that it is virtually impossible to product Canola that does not have some genetically altered plants in a field or bin.

Perhaps the most unusual opposition to Canola comes from
some fringe folks who brand it as a poison but their arguments are pretty well discounted as being of the "urban legend" variety.

Essentially, the arguments by those who condemn Canola, or those who point out that it is not a health hazard, seemed incredibly unimportant to me. Everything is essentially a poison by itself and we all need very much to be aware of what we eat and make sure that variety is the first and foremost rule of all.

The nature of all food is pretty important for us to understand the simple chemistry involve. In order for any animal to live, the combination of hydrocarbons (sugar) and oxygen produces heat and useable energy in the animal or human's body. Though very complex discussions about this process can make it seem impossible to understand, the process is straightforward and simple. Green plants have in their leaves a catalyst, chlorophyl which allows the plant to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and combine it with water using the light from the sun to produce what we can call sugar.


Sugar is a compound made from carbon and hydrogen and when exposed to oxygen under the right conditions, heat is released as the chemical reaction takes place producing the waste chemicals water and carbon dioxide. You really need to realise that this simple process is the basic fuel to our bodies and our bodies are amazingly efficient, able to take what ever form of the hydrocarbons eaten and reorganising the chemistry into sugar. Fats are just very highly concentrated hydrocarbons which the body reformulates into sugar. Some of us do that better than others, and science, though wonderfully impressed with itself, really has less than a 20% understanding of how this works.

The crude machines that our species has developed for travel and transporting goods have made use of the very same process. Super concentrated hydrocarbons in the form of petroleum products, which is essentially plant and animal material, reduced by compression (weight of the earth). The crude oil found in the ground is broken into various components, of which gasoline is perhaps the most volatile and diesel, is though less explosive, with the right mixture of air, is somewhat more efficient. The engines in cars and trucks are not even on the same scale of efficiency with our human bodies and the gas turbines in aircraft engines are the greatest waste makers of all.

So why am I telling you all this when talking about Canola?

Canola takes the process of making hydrocarbons a little further along the line then other plants. The oil from Canola seeds can be used in a diesel engine with almost no modifications to the fuel or the engine. Though we are currently eating most of the Canola grown, that is simply going to change. The crop is relatively easy to grow, in the right conditions, produces very high yields and is clearly an alternative fuel.

Not only can Canola be
used for fuel, but with a little mixing and blending, can be used to make plastics and just about everything else crude oil pumped out of the ground is used for.

The relative cheapness of crude oil has allowed us to use fuel inefficient cars and trucks, blow massive amounts of this nonrenewable resource to make electricity and pretty much make it senseless to develop other forms of energy, because of the pure economic simplicity of extracting it from holes in the ground.

When crude oil prices rose in the early seventies to the staggering price of $18 a barrel, the tar sands of the Fort McMurray area of Alberta, became economically viable. We will see a similar break point coming as crude oil prices rise above $32 a barrel, alternative energy of all kinds will immediately become viable and fields like this one, will be turning out fuel for machines and not for people.

Perhaps more than half of this year's crop of Canadian Canola is still laying in fields. Having germinated very late in the summer, harvest was delayed and now with fall almost beyond thrashing weather, about one third of this year's crop, may not be harvested until spring. Because Canola is in direct competition as a vegetable oil its price is determined by the value and quantity of corn oil and soybean oil available.
November Canola averages out at $411 a tonne today but spot market prices today were $417.

Combines were working in the fields last night until the temperature reached the dew point and shut the process down. This morning these pictures were taken at 9:15 and the ground in the field was damp enough to almost stick to my shoes and the humidity was 82%, so there would be no combining this morning, and perhaps if the wind and sun do their job, the wheels will be turning this afternoon.

Timothy W. Shire

Canola Council of Canada Image library
McDonald, Dr. Bruce E, Canola Oil: Nutritional Properties PDF
CanolaInfo from Lloydminister, SK
Incredible uses for Canola oil on the CanolaInfo site
Lynn, Jim, Canola oil - Deadly for Human Body
Lipshutz-Robinson, Shirley, Beware of Canola Oil, Shirley's Wellness Cafe,
Urban Legend Zeitgeist: Snake Oil: Canola is harmful
Enig, Mary G, Ph.D., Director Nutritional Science Division Enig Associates Inc. Canola Oil Update, discusses various arguments that she refutes as not being valid.
Winnipeg Commodity Exchange Inc. Daily Market Data Canola Futures Settlement Prices


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