by Dan Rahn
Don't bother looking up canola in the dictionary unless you have a very recent edition.
You can, however, look up canola oil on the grocery shelves, in the cooking oils section. You can find it increasingly in the ingredient lists of other products, too, on the labels of everything from margarine to potato chips.
How it got there is at the heart of how a mundane little plant, one that remained largely unchanged through centuries in Europe, has emerged as an intriguing, high-tech, futuristic crop, one that appears perfect for an environment-conscious, health-consumed public.
Agronomists with the University of Georgia have high hopes for canola, a short-season crop native to cooler climes, and they're testing the plant not just in laboratories but in field trials, dazzling plots providing prospects as promising as they are beautiful. (And they are beautiful, those fields, painting spring landscapes with startling spectacles of yellow blooms over rich green foliage.)
The scientists are finding the canola plant remarkably adaptable in making the transition from Northern summers to Southern winters. It's readily receptive, too, to changes biotechnologists make to its very genes.
Add its colossal potential for uses far beyond the dinner table and you have a plant that could produce high yields for both farmers and consumers.
For all its resplendent beauty and powerful potential, though, canola has been called some pretty confusing names: Oilseed rape and rape seed are names still used on the trading boards and in farm reports for canola.
Its name comes originally from the Greek rhapys, meaning "turnip," not from the Latin rapere, meaning "to seize, kidnap, rob or ravish."
The modest, minding-its-own-business plant is a peculiar member of the quiet but important Cruciferae family (the Brassica branch), known in the neighborhood as the mustards: cabbage, turnip, broccoli, cauliflower -- those guys.
Rapeseed isn't a typical cole crop, though. In fact, it has always been something of a family oddball. For centuries its uses remained virtually the same, as reliable as its unexciting but good-for-you cousins. Even the most recent dictionaries define its principal uses as forage for animals, ground cover in orchards, birdseed and rape oil, the latter used mainly as a lubricant.
"Rapeseed naturally has a high erucic (uh-ROO-sick) acid content," said Dr. Paul L. Raymer, a UGA research agronomist and plant breeder at the Georgia Agricultural Experiment Station in Griffin. "That's what gives it the tendency to be a good lubricant."
The plant's natural content and stable history, however, aren't what make it an exciting new crop for Georgia farmers.
The promise of the plant lies not in its history but in its future, not because it's so stable but because it's so pliable.
The plant and its principal uses have changed so much so fast, in fact, that it's hard to know even what to call it. "You have to be careful just keeping the terms straight so you don't confuse people," Raymer said.
Oilseed rape, for instance, is the blanket term that encompasses all uses of the plant. That's not to be confused with rapeseed, the term that identifies the types used for industrial applications. Canola is the term now used for all of the types that produce edible oils.
Canola is also the name that reflects the whirlwind of changes that began in the late '70s when the Canadians started monkeying around with oilseed rape. They had found they could grow the plant perfectly well, but the uses of the oil itself were greatly limited.
The same high erucic acid content that made it a good lubricant also made it unsuitable as a food ingredient -- so unsuitable that its use as an edible oil was banned in the United States.
So the Canadian scientists began tinkering with the fatty acids in the rapeseed oil. And they found they could very quickly breed variations in the plant to produce seeds with a lower erucic acid content and a higher level of oleic (oh-LEE-ick) acid -- the stuff that makes olive oil such a prized edible oil.
Suddenly they had brought rape into the brave, new world of canola, a name (invented to be less offensive to consumers) for a plant that produced a nutritious, edible oil very low in cholesterol and saturated fats.
Canola oil contains only 6 percent saturated fat, the lowest level of any vegetable oil. And it has the highest level (58 percent) of monounsaturated fats. In theory, monounsaturated fats leave the high-density lipoprotein (good cholesterol) levels alone while reducing low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol) levels.
Canola may not be quite perfect yet for the gathering ranks of diet-enduring Americans. But it's a new oil. Scientists are still working on it.
With the dramatic change produced by the canola varieties, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was forced to reconsider its ban on oilseed rape, finally opening up the market in 1985. By then, the Canadians' new varieties had lifted more than the U.S. edible oil ban. They had raised a lot of scientists' eyebrows, too.
If oilseed rape could be manipulated to change the fatty acid content of its seeds that quickly, what other changes were possible? During the '80s the answers came pouring in.
What changes could you make in oilseed rape?
"What do you want?" Raymer quipped, answering the big question
with an open-ended allusion to what are being called "designer oils" because
of the ease with which oilseed rape can be genetically altered.
Scientists are hard-pressed to explain why the plant regenerates so easily in the laboratory, but they're taking advantage of the trait.
"Oilseed rape is very diverse in genetic terms," Raymer said. "It lends itself easily to manipulation through biotechnology and gene transfer."
Already the oil is being used as:
And researchers are still exploring, still broadening the scope of its uses, still pulling new products from the amazing plant. The potential is downright exciting:
Raymer illustrates just how adaptable oilseed rape is by describing the developing area of "high-laurate" varieties. The designation refers to high levels of lauric acid, a short-chain saturated fatty acid used to make soaps and detergents.
Canola doesn't produce lauric acid at all, he said. But scientists have successfully developed high-laurate strains by transferring a gene from a tree species, the California bay.
"Rapeseed is probably the most versatile of all oils," Raymer said, predicting it could soon have the broadest spectrum of uses of any vegetable oil.
Scientists now are fine-tuning this multifaceted oil, nudging traits around with biotechnology to make it more perfectly fit specific needs.
Raymer, for instance, is working in collaboration with Cornell University scientists to manipulate the linolenic (LIN-uh-LEN-ick) acid content.
Linolenic acid oxidizes easily, which reduces the useful life of a cooking oil. Restaurants, particularly, are interested in any cooking oil that will last longer before losing quality.
"We're trying to lower the linolenic acid levels while raising the level of oleic acid," Raymer said. "We think that's the way to go in the future."
Expect the ongoing research to keep raising the standards for canola, he said. Quality canola oil now has 10-12 percent linolenic acid and as much as 65 percent oleic acid. But the linolenic acid of the future oil will likely be less than 3 percent and the oleic acid level at 70-75 percent or more.
A cooking oil with the flavor and quality of olive oil and the lowest levels of cholesterol and saturated fats, and it will last longer than other oils, too.
"There already are types with 90 percent levels of oleic acid," Raymer said, "but they aren't feasible for commercial production."
There is, after all, a bottom line.
Scientists could find oilseed rape the fundamental building block of the universe, but if farmers don't find it feasible, if they can't consistently make money growing it, they won't grow it.
End of sentence.
End of all that exciting potential.
That's why Raymer's work on the linolenic acid and oleic acid content is secondary to his main emphasis of developing superior canola varieties for Georgia farm production.
"We're trying to develop varieties with quality characteristics that are also well-adapted to Georgia conditions," he said.
The first phase of that process has been to identify varieties of canola that have characteristics needed in Georgia. "We've pretty much done that," he said. Most of canola materials UGA scientists are working with have come from Northern Europe, Canada and Australia.
The university has released one variety jointly with the University of Idaho and has a number of others in advanced stages of development.
The first variety fully developed by the University of Georgia could be released as early as 1994. Before it is, though, Raymer wants no doubt that it will be a winner.
"That first variety needs to be a good one," Raymer said, "because the first release so greatly influences the reputation of the later varieties."
A soon-to-be-released variety has received excellent ratings compared to other similar strains being evaluated under field conditions. Like all varieties, it will have to be tested one to three years before it can be judged ready for commercial release.
High yields aren't the only measure of a good variety. "We're trying to develop resistance to two main diseases of canola," Raymer said.
Blackleg is a devastating disease of oilseed rape. The Georgia Experiment Station scientists are close to having a variety, he said, with true resistance to blackleg.
Raymer and colleague Dr. Daniel V. Phillips, a plant pathologist, have also identified some germ plasm with a measure of resistance to sclerotinia, another canola disease.
"We're probably five years or more from releasing anything from this work, though," Raymer said, "And even then it's likely to have more of a tolerance than a true resistance."
In time, Raymer wants to release varieties Georgia farmers can count on to resist diseases and produce high yields in their own soils and climate.
"We hope to be able to support the canola industry in Georgia," Raymer said. "Of course, we're relying on support from industry, too."
There hasn't been any problem getting that support.
"We have a very tight-knit collaboration with the university," said Curt Hill, rapeseed breeder and pathologist with Calgene, Inc., the parent company of Ameri-Can Pedigreed Seeds.
"Paul Raymer has expertise we find very helpful, and we offer him some expertise, too, and some resources -- germ plasm, for instance," Hill said. "Industry needs the support of the university, too. We find the growers have great respect for the university, particularly for John Woodruff."
Woodruff is another part of the picture, and his role as an agronomist with the UGA Cooperative Extension Service provides a vital link between research and application.
As university and industry researchers have been developing canola varieties, Woodruff and other extension specialists have been working closely with them to relay practical production information to farmers.
It's a putting-knowledge-to-work principle that's the envy of other countries
around the world. It recognizes that at the pivotal point of all the potential
of this titillating research is a farmer growing a certain crop. Or choosing
not to grow it.
Vast, yellow waves of canola in Georgia fields are a far cry from reality. The state's farmers grew just 9,000 acres of the crop in the winter of '93, most of which were on contract with Ameri-Can to satisfy a specific low-linolenic-acid canola oil market.
To put that into perspective, the '93 total for wheat, the crop with which canola must compete for acreage, was 360,000 acres.
But as a replacement for some of that winter wheat, canola is a crop that Woodruff, an extension agronomist at the Rural Development Center in Tifton, finds promising. So he has extended the canola research a step further, taking it to the very edge of the farmer's field.
The team established three canola production centers near Baxley, Sandersville and Moultrie that have a number of aims. The first, Woodruff said, is to "get together everybody involved in the crop industry -- academics and growers -- to assess the good and bad aspects of canola production."
Another main objective is applied research: finding out what works best for Georgia farmers with the varieties and equipment available now.
With 50 acres of canola, each center is able to provide large demonstration plots of different varieties, planting dates and farming practices.
The centers are teaching the types of things that make farmers take notice. For instance, farmers can use the same equipment with which they plant wheat, but they can't do it quite the same way.
"It takes some modification," Woodruff said. "We know, for instance, you have to have some kind of soil-firming action behind the grain drill. You have to plant very shallow and then firm the soil, so you have to modify your equipment to do that."
Canola needs more nitrogen than wheat, too. And the planting period of Oct. 10 to Nov. 10 is critical: "Every time we planted in December we lost money," Woodruff said.
The information most likely to catch a farmer's eye, though, is the figure on the bottom line: With slightly higher production costs, canola yielded a net profit of about $65 per acre while wheat netted just $25.
Those figures came from the third function of the canola production centers: Woodruf and Dr. William E. Givan, an extension agricultural economist, analyzed the economic results of the center's test plots, factoring in all variable and fixed costs.
Statewide, wheat and canola both averaged close to 40 bushels per acre. In the extension tests, though, the canola average was 47 bushels per acre. And canola averaed $4.75 per bushel in 1993, while most farmers got $4 a bushel for wheat.
Still, Woodruff is cautious when he talks with the state's growers. It's that caution that anchors farmers' considerable respect for him.
It's all still so new, he figures. Few pesticides are registered to be used on canola. The crop doesn't handle wet soils well. And much still remains unknown about the crop's long-term ability to handle Georgia growing conditions.
Its future in Georgia still bears a measure of uncertainty. As the demand for oilseed rape products increases, somebody somewhere will grow it, but Georgia farmers will have to be able to grow it as well as or better than any other farmers. And their competition will be global.
Oilseed rape's solid place in the marketplace of the future can hardly be doubted. Its progeny may one day be as pervasive a part of everyday life as petroleum products are now.
Canola, the type of oilseed rape that shows the most promise for researchers in Georgia, has a bright enough future on its own. "It's going to be a leading vegetable oil for a long time because it has the characteristics consumers want," Hill said. "It's a fad right now, but it's a fad that will continue."
While health-conscious consumers may drive canola markets as fast as supplies can keep up, Raymer figures the environmental benefits may need a little political nudging.
"The use of rapeseed oils will definitely increase over the next decade," he said. "How fast it increases may depend on how much governments get involved."
In timber harvests in some national forests, for instance, legislation already requires that biodegradable oils be used in chain saw bar-and-chain oils.
Federal legislation could require that nonpolluting marine oils be used in intracoastal waterways and other sensitive waters.
And some cities are considering mandating the use of biodegradable oils in lawn mowers and other urban uses.
Such environmental exigencies foreshadow a future for rape, the oddball plant, that reflects its ancestral heritage. And they echo centuries of parents whose children weren't exactly enamored of canola's cousins -- broccoli, cabbage or mustard greens.
After all this time, oilseed rape has found the common ground it shares with its family.
It's good for you.
-- Dan Rahn, an editor with the University of Georgia Extension Service for the past 10 years, is a former newspaper reporter and editor. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in English education from Georgia Southern University and has taught high school English in South Georgia.