Canola pushes wheat off its throne.

The gold band along the bottom of Saskatchewan’s provincial flag represents the vast wheat fields that once dominated the south half of the province. Today, a bright yellow band would be more fitting.

Prairie farmers could soon see King Wheat relinquish his throne to Queen Canola. And Saskatchewan leads the revolution with slightly fewer than 7.65 million canola acres in 2008. That contrasted with only 7.5 million acres of wheat, down significantly from an all-time high of 18.5 million in 1967.

In 1956, when Statistics Canada started counting, growers seeded rapeseed on only about 156,000 acres. But in the 1970s, plant breeders developed canola and that changed everything. By 2008, canola was seeded on a record 16.1 million acres, only about 1.5 million behind spring wheat.

Although wheat has seen a small rise in seeded acres since 2006, roughly four per cent, it’s paltry compared to canola’s 21 per cent jump over the same period. And economics is the driving force behind canola’s popularity. “Farmers are growing canola because they’re making money growing canola,” says Richard Phillips, executive director of Grain Growers of Canada.

He believes producer profits are a direct result of the research that has gone into tailoring canola to meet end-users’ needs. “In the early days of this crop there was a lot of public sector research. The private sector has accessed that and built on it,” he adds. Phillips says private-sector research investment might not have happened if canola hadn’t been an open market crop, which means new varieties do not have to clear the same licensing hurdles necessary with cereals.

Doug Robertson, a producer from south-central Alberta, agrees and notes the open marketing of canola has one other advantage for producers — the crop can be sold any time for cash. “The primary reason it’s so important is it is a cash-flow crop,” he says. “It’s a crop you can sell anytime.”

With an increase in worldwide demand for all oilseeds, Canadian producers have boosted acres devoted to competing oilseeds as well. In 2009, flaxseed ended its slide and seeded acres jumped to 1.7 million. Soybean acres, too, climbed and are now pushing the 3.5 million mark, with overall production expected to be a record 3.48 million tonnes. But it’s in the edible oils sector where canola has a marketing advantage over other oilseeds. Appealing to increasingly health-conscious consumers, canola oil has high levels of beneficial fatty acids, along with the lowest saturated fat percentage of any major vegetable oil.

In 1985, when canola was granted GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status by the FDA in the U.S., new edible-oil opportunities skyrocketed. Today, the Canola Council of Canada is encouraging growers to further increase production to feed that expanding market.

Also, canola oil’s good cold-weather viscosity has refiners eyeing it as a preferred base for biodiesel. That market could be very important for non-food-grade oil as biofuel-content mandates for diesel are implemented.

Now, farmers in other parts of the world share Canadian growers’ enthusiasm for canola. While Canada grows more tonnes than any other single country, the EU as a whole boasts higher overall production. And China’s rapeseed output surpasses Canadian canola. Private-sector investment continues to enhance the crop’s popularity among growers. Indeed, without this investment, canola could easily have remained just a minor specialty crop. Production difficulties in the early years had farmers shying away. “It was a brutal crop to grow,” recalls Robertson. “You’d have to get up in the morning and breathe calmly. It was so frustrating to swath.” As well, weed control was expensive and sometimes disappointing. But new varieties and herbicide tolerance changed all that. “When we were first growing canola the cost of chemicals was really high,” says Robertson. The chemical load (today) has been reduced significantly in these (herbicide tolerant) crops. You can use much smaller amounts of safer chemicals.”

The corporate investment that brought such a dramatic rebirth for canola is spreading to other crops. An announcement this summer that Bayer CropScience will invest €750 million ($1.2 billion) between 2008 and 2012 in new global wheat development programs signals a new era for cereals, too. That funding is expected to produce improved wheat varieties for the marketplace as early as 2015. FF