Fertilizer is a sustainability risk for the crop, but carbon sequestration may be an opportunity due to no till
Palm oil has a reputation problem.
In 2019, 41 percent of respondents in a United Kingdom survey said palm oil was “environmentally unfriendly”. That number was much worse than other vegetable oils — only nine percent said rapeseed oil (canola) is environmentally unfriendly, five percent for sunflower and two percent for olive oil.
Sustained campaigns by groups like Greenpeace likely contributed to the negative feelings about palm oil. Greenpeace and others say palm plantations are destroying forests in Malaysia and Indonesia and wiping out orangutan habitat.
Last January, the European Parliament voted to ban the use of palm oil in biodiesel. Starting in 2023 it will gradually be phased out until it is eliminated in 2030.
Massive companies like Unilever and Nestle have responded to the campaigns and committed to purchase palm oil from sustainable sources, but the damage to palm oil’s reputation hasn’t gone away.
The governments of Indonesia and Malaysia are now describing the anti-palm-oil movement as a smear campaign and protectionism.
“Indonesia will continue to fight against palm oil discrimination,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo said Feb. 6, Reuters reported.
Canola is in a good place relative to palm oil, but food industry leaders are beginning to ask difficult questions about canola and its impact on the environment.
“The food companies are getting more and more interested, but I would call it more (like) inquiry,” said Curtis Rempel, vice-president for crop production and innovation with the Canola Council of Canada.
“We do get questions. The questions are being asked. What is the footprint?”
Fortunately, Canada’s canola sector is prepared for such questions because of biofuel.
Canola is used as a feedstock for biofuel production in Europe and to qualify for that market, canola exporters need to demonstrate that canola is grown in a sustainable fashion.
The canola exported to Europe must satisfy certain programs, like the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification. The program stipulates, for example, that a canola grower cannot have cleared land since 2008, including forests and wetlands.
Aside from the biofuel programs, the canola council has set sustainability targets to show that canola’s environmental footprint is shrinking.
By 2025, it hopes to accomplish the following:
- Decrease the land needed to produce one tonne of canola by 40 percent.
- Annually sequester an additional five million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the soil.
- Follow 4R nutrient stewardship practices on 90 percent of canola acres. 4R is right place, right time, right source and right rate of fertilizer.
Nutrient use may be the biggest sustainability risk for canola because the crop requires a sizable amount of fertilizer. Producing fertilizer consumes fossil fuels, perhaps as much as 1.2 percent of the world’s energy each year.
“To get protein and oil, we need fertilizer,” Rempel said. “Can’t do it without it. That’s why we have our strong commitment to 4R.”
There are potential solutions to the fertilizer issue and the canola industry is supporting research on more efficient use of nutrients.
One possibility is a better knowledge of soil bacteria and stimulating microbes to access more nitrogen for canola plants.
“That’s called free-living nitrogen fixation,” Rempel said. “That’s where we’re going with canola, with all the soil microbiome work (research).”
Such improvements around sustainability will require innovation, meaning new technologies and new products for canola growers, such as bio-stimulants and canola hybrids with improved nitrogen use efficiency.
While fertilizer is a sustainability risk for canola, carbon sequestration may be an opportunity.
Canola council data shows that 65 percent of the farmland in Western Canada is seeded with no-till practices.
“(This) helps Canadian farmers sequester 11 million tonnes of greenhouse gases in their fields every year (and) 70 percent of this sequestration has been due to canola,” the council says in a sustainability document.
It may be possible to sequester more carbon with canola by designing canola plants with deeper and more vigorous roots.
One question, though, is whether Europe and other nations will recognize carbon sequestration in canola production and how it can help with climate change.
“Another big risk… is that policy makers don’t give Canadian growers credit for adopting zero till over the last 40 years,” Rempel said.
“At the end of the day, zero till is… sort of a western Canadian phenomenon. And are we going to get our due… in the overall global accounting scheme?”