History

From Ancient Times

Various members of the brassica family are probably among the earliest domesticated food crops.  There is evidence that some vegetable types were widely used in the Neolithic age and ancient Indian Sanskrit writings of 2000-1500 BC specifically mention the use of rapeseed oil for cooking and illumination. Greek, Roman and Chinese writings between 500 and 200 BC ascribe medicinal value to them. 

Rapeseed has been cultivated in Europe since about 1200 AD. China is also the world’s biggest producer of rapeseed, followed by India, the European Union and Canada. The Chinese have been cultivating rapeseed for nearly 2000 years and is the Country’s most important oilseed crop and fifth most important crop overall.

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According to the literature, the Chinese were the first to successfully hybridize Brassica napus.

Chinese researchers initiated development of low erucic acid and low glucosinolate varieties of rapeseed in 1978, and the Canadian’s have been supporting this work under the IDRC since 1983.  Until the early 1990s, China grew only the traditional high-glucosinolate high-erucic acid rape.

Cultivation in Europe

Rapeseed has been grown in Europe since about the thirteenth Century, but it went unnoticed by the general public until about the 1980s when the acreage of its genetically engineered cousin, oilseed rape,  increased at a colossal rate due to a combination of intensive agricultural practices and the fact that farmers received extremely lucrative subsides for cultivating this crop as a result of the UK joined the EEC in 1973. This meant that UK farmers qualified for guaranteed minimum price support, which subsequently doubled their seed value and oilseed rape became a valuable cash-crop

Canola Industry

In recent history, the rapeseed industry was developed in Canada after the Second World War, it became known as the canola industry. Canola oil was developed and marketed as a means of ensuring a reliable domestic edible oilseed industry, it was processed and used as salad oil. Canadian farmers were looking for alternative crops which grew well on the open plains and could replace other domestic crops, which had previously been exported abroad.  This innovation enabled Canada to become  self-supporting during the years of depression that followed the war.

Rapeseed was introduced into Canada when a farmer by the name of Fred Solvoniuk, who had immigrated from Poland in 1927, received an envelope of seed from a friend or relative back home and began to grow it on his farm in Shellbrook, Saskatchewan, in 1936. The descendants of these “Polish” seeds, (identified as being of the Brassica campestris species), later became low-erucic acid rapeseed after extensive breeding.  Due to the absence of a market for the seed, little was grown in Canada prior to 1942 except in small research trials at experimental farms and research stations. Those trials did establish the fact that rapeseed could be grown in both Ontario and western Canada.

The name canola is used to refer to the altered varieties of rape that meet the quality standards set for canola.  In Europe “rape” can refer to both the traditional rape and to the newer canola-quality rape. The new name began to be used in 1974 in connection with the introduction of the first “double-low” (low glucosinolate low erucic acid) Canadian-bred variety of rape, Tower.

In 1986 the trademark “canola” was legally amended so that it could be applied only to varieties yielding rapeseed oil that contained less than 2% erucic acid and meal containing less that 30 micromoles per gram of glucosinolates.

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 Recognised As Safe (GRAS).  The use of “canola” on food labels in the U.S. was cleared late in 1988.

The trademark registration ensures that the term “canola” only appears on products which adhere to the canola definition. License agreements have been signed with 36 companies from Canada and abroad. The license agreement allows companies to use the word “canola”, and the four petal flower symbol, on all canola products which meet the standards and specifications of the Canola Council of Canada.

Rapeseed oil ban of 1956

Rapeseed oil had certain negative characteristics which led to the Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare imposing a ban on all sales of oil for edible purposes in 1956. The ban was rescinded some three months later due to the insistance of the crop breeders that there was only minimal human consumption of rapeseed at that time.  Although the ban was never implemented, the perception remained that health problems could arise from rapeseed oil consumption because erucic acid was found to cause heart lesions in rats fed on a rapeseed diet. The breeders shifted their focus onto reducing the erucic acid content of the seed.

Rapeseed oil scare about its erucic acid content in 1970

By 1964, the breeders had successfully reduced the erucic acid content of the seed from 40% down to 10%. In 1970 another health scare circulated about the serious health implications of erucic acid in the diet.  This was confirmed in literature published by the plant breeders in 1970.

By 1974, the erucic acid content had been reduced down to 5% and the plant breeders phased-in the (healthier) lower erucic acid rapeseed as a replacement for the higher erucic rapeseed that continued to be sold to the public as an edible oilseed.  The replacement rapeseed was marketed as the “healthier option”.

Author - Armitage; copyright 2007

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