Wheat dominated prairie farming after Lord Selkirk’s first settlers arrived in what is now Manitoba in 1812 with a few small bags of seed.
The cereal was loosely related to indigenous native grasses so it was logical that wheat would account for nearly all cultivated acres as agriculture spread west across the Prairies.
But dependence on any homogenous crop leads to problems such as disease, insects and the weeds that ultimately adapt to it. As well, monoculture always limits marketing opportunities.
That was the situation Baldur Stefansson faced in 1958 when he joined the University of Manitoba’s plant science department.
His first assignment was to identify an oilseed crop that could work for prairie farmers. After studying the options, he concluded rapeseed was the
Farmers had figured out by the 1940s that rapeseed grew well on the Prairies, but it was not an edible crop and had only slight economic potential. Annual rapeseed production typically averaged only a few thousand acres per year, with the oil used for industrial purposes.
High erucic acid levels kept it out of grocery stores because of perceived health risks.
High glucosinolate levels, which caused bad odour and taste in the meal, kept it out of livestock rations.
If these two negative characteristics could be bred out of rapeseed, it might be the ideal cash crop for prairie farmers seeking an alternative to wheat.
It was a long and complicated challenge. Canadian plant breeder Keith Downey had identified low glucosinolate genetics in a Polish variety and a low erucic acid variety had also been licensed in the late 1960s.
But the elusive combination of low erucic acid and low glucosinolates prevented annual prairie rapeseed production from exceeding a million acres.
These were still not the kind of numbers that would indicate the potential “Cinderella crop” farmers wanted.
As well, plant breeding with conventional methods of the day was a slow process.
The breakthrough came in 1974 when Stefansson released Tower, the first double-low rapeseed variety suitable for human and livestock consumption.
The new variety warranted a new classification to designate it as a double-low food product. In 1978, the name canola was officially registered to define rapeseed varieties with less than two percent erucic acid in the oil and low glucosinolate levels in the meal.
The canola designation opened up a large international market for the prairie-grown crop and the name, which joined the words Canada and oil, quickly became recognized.
This year, Canadian farmers seeded more than 14 million acres of canola, and dozens of new varieties
are released each year. According to the Canola Council of Canada, the crop annually adds more than $11 billion in economic activity to the Canadian economy.
Its data show that 52,000 Canadian farmers grow canola and depend on it for one-third to one-half of their annual income.
The father of canola, as Stefansson is often called, died in 2002 and was inducted into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame the same year.