Canada’s Other Oil: Canola for the World

Posted by on May 3rd, 2017 | 0 Comments »

This story appears in the 2016 Global Agricultural Productivity Report® (GAP Report®), page 30.

Canola is an oilseed plant that grows across much of Canada. Over the past half-century it has been transformed from a little-known crop used for lubricant properties during World War II to the country’s most profitable crop and the third largest edible oil crop in the world. Public and private research collaboration, farmer ingenuity and dedication, along with a suitable innovation enabling policy environment, are responsible for this dramatic transformation benefiting farmers, rural communities and consumers both in Canada and worldwide.

Lesley Kelly and her son in their canola field in Saskatchewan, Canada. “Canola is a versatile and hardy crop - we grow it in a rotation with oats, wheat, flax and pulses. Canola contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, is high oleric and free of cholesterol. Our genetically modified canola is resistant to herbicides and helps us adopt sustainable practices like no-till. It also enables us to plow less often, saving fuel and equipment use.”

In the 1950s, Canadian government researchers identified an opportunity to develop a new oilseed based on the rapeseed plant that could complement wheat in the prairies and meet a growing demand for domestic edible oils.

Plant breeders, mindful of consumer and scientific concerns about potentially unhealthy levels of erucic acid in rapeseed, instituted a research program to improve the plant for human and livestock consumption. Canada’s agriculture research institute was the only entity willing to fund basic rapeseed research, and genetic germplasm information moved freely between researchers and farmers and other breeders, who worked collectively towards improving the traits and productivity of the plant.

In the late 1960s, an association of groups that had a stake in the emerging rapeseed industry joined together to fund marketing and research to further develop the potential of rapeseed. When plant breeders produced highly desirable varieties containing low levels of erucic acid and glucosinolates, another unhealthy substance in the plant, a new era began in which the name “canola” was trademarked, indicating the healthy variety with guaranteed high standards. Canola was now positioned to become the premium oil for human consumption and marketing efforts were established by the Canola Council of Canada to promote acceptance and grow the market for the oil.

By 1985, several private sector companies such as Monsanto began breeding research to further improve the yields and properties of canola. The Canadian government facilitated private sector research efforts by extending intellectual property rights and creating clear, responsible regulations for industry to operate within.

Source: Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot, “GM Crops: Global Socioeconomic and Environmental Impacts 1996- 2013,” PG Economics. Ltd., (May 2015).

Today, the canola industry in Canada has benefited from private research by Monsanto and other companies that developed conventional and genetically modified (GM) varieties of herbicide-tolerant canola, introduced in 1996.

Herbicide-tolerant canola systems are especially beneficial for farmers and the environment, as canola can be grown in a no- or minimum-tillage system of production. Such systems require fewer applications of pesticide and herbicide, make weed control easier, reduce the wear and tear on farm machinery, decrease labor and fuel used, and help sequester carbon in soil and improves soil health.

Herbicide-tolerant canola generated net total benefits (direct and indirect benefits) of between 1 billion and 1.2 billion Canadian dollars for the period 2005 to 2007, due to lower input costs and better weed control. [1]

While genetic modification in breeding creates a GM canola plant, the oil of such herbicide-resistant varieties is identical to the oil of conventional canola — the oil itself contains no GM material. On the nutrition side, the benefits to consumers continue to grow, as private sector companies are breeding canola to produce healthy omega-3 fatty acids found in fish: DHA and EPA.


[1] Stuart Smyth, Michael Gusta, Peter Phillips, and David Castle, “Assessing the Economic and Ecological Impacts of Herbicide Tolerant Canola in Western Canada,” Winnipeg: Canola Council of Canada, (August 2010).

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