What's the Issue with Canola

Currently, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is proposing a permanent rule to allow the oilseed commodity crop, canola (also known as “rapeseed”) to be grown in large areas in the Willamette Valley.  This decision could dramatically change the face of farming and gardening in Oregon.
How can one little plant cause so much ruckus?  Some facts:

The Willamette Valley is one of five superior seed growing regions left in the world.  Our farmers serve an international market.  Canola farming has significantly harmed many other seed growing regions, leaving the world with only a handful of locations that remain for seed development and cultivation.

Canola is promiscuous. It readily cross pollinates with turnips, broccoli raab, some kales, rutabaga, and possibly with radishes and broccoli.  This quality presents a serious problem for seed breeders, seed growers, and seed savers.  Canola contamination is not an issue for oilseed production, but would be devastating for the vegetable seed industry.

Canola is persistent.  It has a history of re-sprouting in fields where it was previously grown.  Testing has shown that escaped seed can have a seven-year lifespan.

Canola is disease and pest-prone.  Large acreages of canola raise hoards of insect pests, such as the pollen eating beetle.  When these fields are harvested or go to seed, those insect pests leave in search of a new source of food.  These beetles require the use of more pesticides, and several countries are dealing with pesticide resistance in the pollen beetle. Canola is host to four serious diseases and two serious insect pests that would directly affect seed and fresh vegetable production of Brassica and clover species.

Canola is a tough, dryland plant – which means that it can easily become an invasive weed.  It’s drought-tolerant qualities are what makes canola useful to dryland grass seed farmers.  Unfortunately, this very quality can make canola into a weed problem for surrounding or downstream farms.

Canola seed looks just like many other Brassica seeds.  This means that canola seed cannot be sorted out of a batch of Brassica seed.  Seed farmers explain that their seed batches can be rejected with any more than three incorrect seeds per batch of one thousand.  The seed industry requires a very high level of seed purity.

Canola contamination is a problem for animal feed, as well.  Some animals will not eat feed contaminated with the acrid mustard-like seed.

If grown in the valley, canola will be grown on very large acreages.  The low-value of canola for oilseed use requires farmers grow hefty amounts of it to make a profit.  These mass acreages increase disease and pest pressure, and contamination problems for nearby farms and gardens.

An unprecedented coalition of Oregon farmers are against canola.  The list of farmers opposing canola include vegetable seed growers, clover seed growers, fresh produce market growers, organic growers, some grass and wheat growers, and even GM sugar beet growers.  Click here for the list of specific farmers and farming organizations.

Under the proposed rule, canola is given preference over established farming practices.  The ODA’s Ruling does not require isolation of canola-producing fields.  Though they require “pinning” or notification to neighbors of a farmer’s plan to grow canola, the rules do not follow the established guidelines of seniority that specialty seed farmers already respect.  In effect, this allows canola to “bully” its way into the Valley, and not work cooperatively within the existing, agreed upon system.  This just isn’t a fair way to introduce a new crop.

Canola is a problem to our farmers, whether genetically modified or not.  However, the prevalence of GM contamination within conventional canola seed is so high that it presents a serious economic risk to farmers who sell internationally or who are organically certified.  Oregon farmers are already experiencing problems with escaped or cross-pollinated transgenic (GMO) sugar beets and creeping bentgrass.  The introduction of canola poses an even greater risk because canola cross-pollinates with more crops. Learn more on our What’s the Science on Canola fact-page.