Growing up on a farm in Saskatchewan, Canada, in the 1960s, the squint-your-eyes-it’s-so-bright fields, are vivid memories of my childhood. A member of the family Brassicaceae (mustard or cabbage family), the yellow-flowered rape, short for rapeseed, fields signaled mid summer on the prairies. In my late teens, the rapeseed fields became canola fields, with that same blinding yellow shade. So how did a rapeseed plant become a canola plant? The rapeseed canola makeover is not a tale of proper etiquette. Rather the development of safer canola oil for human consumption. 

Rapeseed Canola field with barn

The rapeseed canola makeover

Following the end of WWII, demand for rapeseed oil decreased markedly and other uses for the product were sought. Introduced as an extract in food products, rapeseed oil was found by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to be so toxic it was banned from human consumption in 1956.

In the 1970s, Keith Downey and Baldur Stefansson bred a new variety of rapeseed plant in Canada. With a lower content of the toxic erucic acid it provided a safer canola cooking oil.

Originally called LEAR (Low Erucic Acid Rapeseed), the label evolved to canola. The origin of the word canola, is the combination of ‘Canadian’ and ‘low acid’. 

Adding a marketing strategy of the health benefits of cooking with the low fat oil, the rapeseed canola transformation may have been one of the most lucrative agricultural makeovers in history. Registered as a trademark in Canada in 1978, canola crops generate one quarter of all farm crop revenue.

So coconut oil comes from coconuts and olive oil comes from olives. Canola oil comes from rapeseed, albeit genetically modified.

Saskatchewan storm over yellow flower field

The canola plant becomes a big player in Canadian agriculture

The Canola Council of Canada released a study in 2017 showing Canadian-grown canola contributes $26.7 billion to the Canadian economy each year. The canola industry includes more that 250,000 Canadian jobs and $11.2 billion dollars in wages.

Besides being found in kitchens, canola meal is one of the most common protein sources for animal feed globally. 43,000 farmers, primarily in the western provinces of Canada, including Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, harvest the canola plant annually.

Besides the main canola products of canola oil for human consumption and canola meal for livestock, another increasing use is canola oil for biodiesel. As countries around the world look to biofuels to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, canola biodiesel is being marketed as a cleaner alternative to diesel fuel.

According to the Canola Council of Canada, production of canola has doubled in the last 20 years. The council predicts a 40% increase by 2025 or an increase of 8 million tonnes.

That’s a lot of yellow fields to be on the watch for.

Saskatchewan road and canola field

Once rapeseed now canola, running near a field on our family farm

No longer the land of rape and honey

The Saskatchewan town of Tisdale, near my rural roots, once welcomed visitors with a sign that read, ‘Welcome to Tisdale – Land of Rape and Honey.’

Advertising its rapeseed and bee keeping industry, the sign stood on the outskirts of town for 60 years. The heavy metal band Ministry released an album titled ‘The Land of Rape and Honey’ in 1988 after seeing the peculiar slogan on a souvenir mug.

Although the album went gold, my personal advice is to skip this one. No offense to any heavy metal music lovers out there.

The town slogan became an often-mocked, deemed offensive and confusing welcome.  After dealing with regular complaints about the inappropriate nature of the sign, in 2016 the town council unanimously voted to take it down. The Tisdale slogan now reads ‘ ‘Opportunity Grows Here’.

My guess is town council receives fewer complaints.

Canola plant in field

A closer look at a canola plant in its backdrop of yellow

Should you be planning a drive across the Canadian prairies mid July, you will find the landscape blanketed in vibrant yellow. Might I suggest you bring an extra set of sunglasses?

Have you seen one of these yellow fields? Do you have rapeseed or canola fields where you live?

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