The fields of canola that bloom vibrant yellow are more than just a pretty backdrop to a drive in the country – they are a Canadian innovation that has become the country's most valuable farm export.
Exports of the small black canola seeds and the cooking oil and animal feed they yield have more than doubled in the past 10 years. And the group that represents growers and marketers of canola figures rising global demand will help it boost canola production by 40 per cent by 2025.
"The world is telling Canada's canola industry to keep it coming," said Terry Youzwa, a grain grower in Saskatchewan and chairman of the Canola Council of Canada, a group comprised of growers and the companies involved in the marketing and processing of the crop, including Cargill Ltd., Monsanto Canada and Richardson Oilseed Ltd.
Increasing the size of the canola crop will be no easy feat. The crop competes for field space with wheat, corn, soy and other grains that are rotated each season to let the soil recuperate. But Mr. Youzwa figures the larger crop can be achieved through better yields – squeezing out a lot more plants and seeds with just a small increase in acreage.
The industry is improving the resistance of seeds to pest and engineering plants that can better weather droughts or bad weather. "The genetic potential is there, and we intend to harness the full capacity of industry agronomists, advisers and scientists to make the most of it," Mr. Youzwa said at a press conference in Winnipeg on Thursday.
"Life science companies have invested heavily in scientific research in order to improve canola genetics and maximize yields," said Neil Arbuckle of Monsanto.
Canola was developed from rapeseed in Manitoba in the 1970s by breeding out the acidic characteristics and making it edible. There are now 43,000 Canadian growers of the crop.
The Canadian canola crop was 18 million tonnes in 2013, a 29-per-cent rise largely attributed to good weather. Saskatchewan produced the most, 9 million tonnes, followed by Alberta and Manitoba. The seeds are crushed for oil used for cooking and biofuels. The remaining protein-rich meal is fed to cattle, chickens or fish as the growing global population and increasing middle class in emerging markets drives greater demand for meat.
With consumers, canola oil is gaining popularity for its low levels of saturated fats and richness in vitamin E. Its neutral taste and high burn point make it popular for frying foods. In 2013, Canadian canola exports rose by 62 per cent to China, by far the biggest buyer, followed by Japan and Mexico. Sales to the United States more than doubled.
Mr. Youzwa said global demand for vegetable oil is expected to grow by 100 million tonnes by 2015, and other countries will step up to fill the gap if Canada doesn't.
"As populations earn more and learn more about healthy eating, the demand for healthy oil will increase. There is also growing demand for protein," he said.
But the international market for Canadian canola is limited because most of the seeds are genetically modified and subject to strict regulation in such places as Europe, which grows its own non-GM version of canola, still called rapeseed.
The opportunities to boost sales of Canadian canola are in places where meat consumption is on the rise, and in biofuels, said Neil Sabourin, an oilseed manager with Cargill in Winnipeg and a Canola Council board member.