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  Oilseed Rape
By
Jos Bijman
 
 
 
Keywords:  Rapeseed/Canola; Genetic engineering; Private industry; Substitution; Plant breeding; North America; Europe (West).
Correct citation: Bijman, J. (1994), "Oilseed Rape." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 21, p. 10-11.

Oilseed rape has been in the spotlight of biotechnology research. High expectations of both technological advances and commercial opportunities have fostered large investment in R&D programmes for oilseed rape. These are risky investments, since so many vegetable oils are interchangeable. Still, there are reasons to expect production and consumption growth, both in industrialized and developing countries.

Oilseed rape (OSR), or rapeseed, is the most important Brassica plant grown for oil. The oil is the third major vegetable oil, after soya bean oil and palm oil. In the 1980s rapeseed and palm gained market share from soya bean. In Japan, China and India, rapeseed oil has become the number one vegetable oil.
Due to its ability to germinate and grow at low temperatures, OSR is one of the few edible oil crops that can be cultivated at Northern latitudes. In most Northern countries, such as Canada, OSR is grown as a spring crop, while in other areas, e.g. in Europe, it is largely a winter­planted crop. Winter varieties are higher yielding than spring varieties. The main producer of OSR is China, followed by India, Canada, Germany, France and the UK (see table).
OSR production has grown rapidly during the 1980s, with an annual growth rate of 11 per cent worldwide. In European countries production grew even faster: Germany and the UK experienced an annual growth of production of almost 30 per cent. Most of the change in output was due to increases in the area under cultivation. Government policies have been instrumental in establishing this growth. The European Union (EU) has encouraged OSR production by generous subsidies, as part of its policy to increase the self­sufficiency rate in vegetable oils.

Consumption
The predominant use of OSR is for the oil pressed from the seed, which in turn is used as cooking oil for human consumption or for use as fuel or lubricant. To be suitable for human consumption rapeseed oil should have a low erucic acid content. Similarly, oil­free meal must have a low glucosinolate content to make it suitable for livestock consumption. In Canada and the USA, OSR varieties that meet the requirements of less than two per cent erucic acid in the oil and less than 30 micromoles of glucosinolates per gram of oil­free meal can be called "canola" varieties. In Europe varieties with these characteristics are called "double zero" varieties.
For health reasons, consumers increasingly prefer vegetable oils and fats over animal fats, and poly­unsaturated oils and fats over saturated ones. In North America this trend has led to a rapid growth in the consumption of rapeseed oil which is low in saturated fats, at the expense of tropical vegetable oils, which tend to be high in saturated fats.
In contrast to the USA, in Europe varieties with high erucic acid oil are also cultivated, as the oil is attractive for industrial purposes, such as environmentally friendly lubricants. On a small scale, rapeseed oil is also used as a renewable source of fuel. Its meal is used as a high protein feed supplement for livestock and poultry. A very high proportion (more than 90 per cent) of OSR is crushed in its country of production. Only Canada has a significant export of OSR, mainly to Japan.

Large investments in OSR breeding
In recent years many plant breeding companies and new biotechnology firms have invested heavily in research and development for OSR breeding. A major goal in breeding research is obtaining hybrids. Other objectives include disease resistance, maturity, oil and protein content, fatty acid composition of the oil, reduced fibre content, reduced anti­metabolites, and reduced free fatty acid content.
OSR has been one of the most favourite crops for the genetic engineering of plants. Of a total of 878 approvals for field releases of transgenic plants in OECD countries in the period 1986 to summer 1992, one third (290) was for OSR. Most of these experiments (about 218 or 75 per cent) were carried out in Canada. The main trait in all 290 field releases was herbicide tolerance (83 per cent). Others were the development of transgenic hybrids (9 per cent) en quality aspects (7 per cent). Some tests had combined traits.
The large investments in OSR breeding research have been encouraged by high expectations of both the technological and commercial potentials. It is expected that the growth of OSR production experienced in the 1980s, will continue for another decade or more. The health aspects especially will promote consumption and thus production. Regarding the technological development, the application of genetic engineering and other biotechnologies (e.g. tissue culture, protoplast fusion, haploids) have proved to be easier in rapeseed than in many other crops.
Canada is the most important country for OSR breeding. Starting with the development of the canola­varieties in the 1960s, Canada has built up a critical mass in canola breeding. This knowledge base, both public and private, has attracted European and American companies which are directly or indirectly engaged in OSR research.
 
Production of oilseed rape
 
annual production (1000 tonnes)
yield (kg/ha)
1979-81*
1991-93*
1991-93*
China
2,952
7,346
1,217
India**
1,864
5,321
857
Canada
2,581
4,498
1,319
Germany
618
2,749
2,801
France
872
1,897
2,909
UK
274
1,200
2,911
World
11,292
26,949
1,331

*three year average
**including mustard seed
Source: FAO (1993), Product Production Yearbook, vol. 47

North America
The major Canadian OSR breeders are United Grain Growers (UGG), Zeneca (formerly ICI Seeds) and King Agro (part of Sanofi, France). A special place is taken up by Allelix Crop Technologies. This biotechnology firm was started in 1982 and was acquired by Pioneer Hi­Bred International in 1990. Allelix is developing OSR hybrids as well as special OSR seed which produces characteristics in the oil that are specified by food companies, in particular by the snack food producer Frito­Lay (PepsiCo).
Other companies engaged in research on OSR seeds (particularly hybrids) are Intermountain Canola (a joint venture of DuPont and DNA Plant Technology), Cargill and Calgene. Cargill and Calgene (through its subsidiary Ameri­Can Seed) together supply 75 per cent of the US OSR seed market. Calgene is following a similar strategy as Allelix, i.e. developing (with biotechnology) and marketing new OSR varieties with special characteristics for industrial purposes. Where Allelix is targeting the food industry, Calgene is developing products for the oleo­chemical industry. Calgene Chemical, for instance, is supplying rapeseed oil based biodegradable lubricants to Mobil Oil.
Even more interesting is Calgene's work on a rapeseed variety that produces oil containing lauric acid. In January 1992 Calgene announced that it had developed such a variety. Lauric acid is a key raw material in the production of detergents, soaps, and personal hygiene and care products. Current commercial sources are coconut and palm kernel oil. If the new variety proves to be successful, OSR can be used as a substitute for coconut and palm kernel oil imported from Southeast Asia.

Europe
In Europe, Germany and France are the main OSR producing countries. Two German OSR breeders, Deutsche Saatveredelung Lippstadt­Bremen (DSV) and Norddeutsche Pflanzenzucht Hans­Georg Lembke (NZP), together supply 70 per cent of the European OSR seed market. Other OSR breeders in Europe are Semences Cargill and Sanofi in France, Van der Have in the Netherlands, Maribo/Danisco in Denmark, Weibull in Sweden and Plant Breeding International in the United Kingdom.
Most of these companies are involved in research on transgenic OSR varieties. France seems to be the main country to carry out field trials with transgenic varieties. The German breeders are not engaged in genetic engineering research, although they co­operate with others (such as Calgene) that are developing transgenic varieties. The reason for their absence is legal and public acceptance barriers in Germany.
The technological and commercial opportunities have also attracted companies without any tradition in OSR breeding. Plant Genetic Systems (PGS), Belgium, is the most successful example of this trend. PGS has been the first to develop a transgenic OSR hybrid. After several years of field experiments in Canada and Europe, PGS filed an application for approval to market its transgenic hybrid OSR in Europe in May 1994. The application has been filed in the United Kingdom, but once approved, this variety of transgenic OSR could be released in all EU countries.
The hybrid OSR has been developed using the SeedLinkTM technology (Monitor no. 19). This hybrid OSR is expected to give higher yield, better disease resistance and more uniform seed production, thus improving the harvestability. Besides this trait the new variety has also been made herbicide tolerant. The glufosinate tolerance is used in seed production to facilitate the selection of pure parental lines. It may also be used by farmers in weed control, as it provides the option for using the non­selective glufosinate herbicide Basta, produced by the German agrochemical company Hoechst.

Unfunded optimism?
According to an article in Bio/Technology (April '93), the expectations of the return on investment in OSR breeding research may be too high. There are at least three factors that make investments in hybrid canola seed research risky: the interchangeability of edible oils, the lengthy time of adoption of hybrids, and technological developments in competing crops.
There is a high degree of substitution between vegetable oils. Processing techniques such as hydrogenation and esterification have increased the options for blending different kinds of vegetable oils, thus making them more interchangeable. Large food companies have acknowledged this interchangeability and have changed from captive oil production to procurement of oil, permitting flexibility in incorporating the lowest­cost oil. Interchangeability keeps most vegetable oils in a relatively narrow price range. Thus, the market of OSR will be very much determined by what is happening with other oilseed crops, particularly with soya beans and sunflower seed.
The acceptance of hybrid seed may take a long time. Apart from the official trials to demonstrate the superior performance of existing varieties, farmers must be convinced to switch from non­hybrid to hybrid seed. This acceptance depends, of course, on the premium to be gained with hybrids. Also traditional OSR breeding delivers improved varieties.
Finally, biotechnologies applied in soya bean and sunflower breeding may also enhance the characteristics of these oilseeds, thus posing an extra threat to OSR.

Developing countries
For developing countries the application of biotechnology in OSR breeding can mean several things. As mentioned earlier, attempts to produce a rapeseed variety that makes oil containing lauric acid may lead to substitution of the traditional lauric acid­containing oils from coconut and palm kernel. On the other hand, the interchangeability of several vegetable oils may provide new opportunities for developing countries. For example, the development of low erucic acid, low glucosinolate varieties is an important goal in OSR breeding for some developing countries. This is to create nutritionally­better oils for human consumption and to develop meal suitable for animal feed. It can also create a quality standard which is compatible with canola­type OSR oil and meal. It may therefore create an export opportunity, in particular for OSR low­cost producers, once self­sufficiency rises above a hundred per cent. New biotechnologies provide also options for the transfer of other characteristics to local varieties, such as disease resistance, or help to improve yield. As the table shows, yield in India and China is considerably lower than in Europe.
Successful expansion of OSR production in developing countries depends on at least two other aspects: agronomic and crop management, and oilseed processing. The advances in breeding will simultaneously demand advances in agronomic research in such aspects as planting rates and dates, fertilizer regimes, crop protection and weed control. Similarly, countries should have oilseed crushing and oil refining capability adapted to the use of OSR as a resource material in order to capitalize on increased cultivation options.
Jos Bijman

Sources
Bill Howard (1993), Oils and Oilseeds to 1996: The new patterns of supply and demand. London/New York: The Economist Intelligence Unit.

Brewster Kneen (1992), The Rape of Canola. Toronto: NC Press.

OECD (1993), Field Releases of Transgenic Plants, 1986­1992: An analysis. Paris: OECD.

M. Renard, J.H. Louter and L.H. Duke (1994), "Oilseed Rape". In: OECD, Traditional Crop Breeding Practices: An historical review to serve as a baseline for assessing the role of modern biotechnology. Paris: OECD.



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