Two weeks ago, I was driving home (which is near Paris) from the French Alps after an enjoyable week of skiing. I was constantly amazed by how many of the fields by the sides of the road were completely yellow. A very bright and consistent yellow. I sort of knew that this must be rapeseed or Canola, but I couldn’t imagine why we need so much of it. Am I using it or eating it without knowing?
Then, I drove to England for a work trip. Exactly the same thing. Yellow fields everywhere. What is going on? Why does Europe need so much rapeseed or Canola?
Problems with monocultures
I guess some people might feel that these yellow fields are quite pretty, but I feel nervous about them immediately because I don’t like monocultures (growing a single crop over a large area). I first started to hear about monocultures in documentaries like Fresh, Dirt, Vanishing of the Bees and One Man, One Cow, One Planet.
I also heard Charlotte Gerson talk about the problems of modern agriculture (stemming from monocultures) in the documentary Food Matters. When we start to use monocultures, we create a perfect situation for pests. It’s like offering a feast for whatever pest likes to attack that single crop. There’s no diversity in the flora and hence no diversity in the associated fauna as well, so the pest that likes the crop has a free-for-all. The next step is to introduce artificial pesticides to combat these very happy pests. These pesticides get into the plant and the soil and make the whole system a bit weaker. Because there’s no diversity of fauna, the ground does not get the type of natural fertilizer it would in a natural setting, so the farmers have to introduce artificial fertilizers as well. However, these fertilizers are generally deficient in many of the nutrients needed by the plants (so well said by Charlotte), so the crops are further weakened, and a vicious cycle goes on. Weakened crops are more susceptible to pests and the need for pesticides goes up, and on and on.
Fundamentally, monocultures aren’t natural. Nature never has just a single crop growing in a field. Humans do that because they think it’s more convenient. Nature always has a mixture of crops and various animals passing over the land. The documentary Fresh shows how this works very clearly.
Further, the documentary Vanishing of the Bees suggests that the enormous amount of pesticides used with monoculture farming is the reason we are beginning to see the bee population disappear rapidly.
So, I don’t like monocultures of any kind. Without even knowing all of the details, they are obviously not a way nature would proceed, so they are probably a bad way for us to go. But now, the next question is why are so many of the fields completely yellow?
My brief history of rapeseed / Canola
This is my version of the history of rapeseed. At the bottom of the page you can find a number of links to related pages with a lot more information, but this is my summary. I’ve used some literary license in this summary, so please just take it as my version. If any details are wrong, I’m happy to be corrected.
Rapeseed is a crop that seems to have been used for millennia specifically for its oil. Originally this oil was used in lamps for lighting. Then, with the industrial revolution, the oil started to be used as a lubricant for machinery, and this usage reached its height in the second world war where the oil was commonly used as a lubricant for the machinery of the defense forces.
A problem occurred for rapeseed after the second world war as there was a dramatic drop in demand for the oil. The producers needed to find other uses for the oil to keep their businesses going. Unfortunately, nobody had ever used the oil in food because it tasted bad, looked bad, smelt bad and contained some nasty chemicals. But when has that ever stopped an industry? They tried to introduce the oil into food markets in the 1950’s, but it wasn’t very popular. So they began trying to breed different varieties that would be more suitable for food. When they tried reducing one of the nasty chemicals in the oil, it caused an increase of erucic acid which is a suspected cause of heart damage based on animal experiments, but even that didn’t stop them. They continued to try and find ways to reduce the erucic acid. In the 1970’s the Rapeseed Association of Canada chose the name Canola for rapeseed oil. Obviously they were looking for a way to avoid the word “rape”, but they were also working hard to find varieties that were low in the troublesome chemicals and would be more acceptable to food markets.
Genetic modification came to the assistance of rapeseed in the latter part of the 20th century. Now, instead of breeding different varieties, they could be engineered in a lab. It’s clear that these genetic modifications are not designed for the benefit of the consumer, they are purely designed so that companies can make more profits. By the year 2000, there were genetically modified versions of rapeseed available that were disease and drought resistant. With further genetic modifications, a “roundup” resistant version also came onto the market. Why? So that farmers can spray “roundup” all over the rapeseeed crop to kill weeds but not kill the crop. The result is we have genetically modified crops dosed with enormous amounts of pesticides getting into our foods. Is that good for the people? Of course not. But it does make it easier for agriculture and food companies to make more profits.
What is rapeseed used for today
There are four prime uses of rapeseed today;
- Lubrication oil – as it has been used for very long time
- Rapeseed oil / Canola – as a vegetable oil in food production
- Animal feed, mostly for cattle
Extracting rapeseed oil for food production is not easy. In its natural state, it still looks bad (green), tastes bad and smells bad. But that doesn’t seem to matter as they can introduce an enormous amount of processing to solve these problems. With a processing facility to heat the seed and crush it, then do some sort of refining using hexane and acid, bleach it with clay (to remove its natural green color), and deodorize it by distilling it with steam, they suddenly have an oil suitable for the food market.
I worry a lot about this sort of thing. The more processing we do, the further we’re getting away from nature. My favorite oils are olive oil and coconut oils and to obtain these all we have to do is squeeze the fruit (cold-pressing). That’s perfectly natural and I feel much more comfortable with oils like this.
Once the rapeseed oil has been extracted and processed, what’s left over is rapeseed meal that can be used for animal feed, mostly for cattle (I thought they should be eating grass).
Finally, the oil can be used for biofuel. In the European Union, more than two-thirds of the total rapeseed oil supply is used for biodiesel production (and it’s government subsidized).
Why is rapeseed a popular crop?
Again, this is just my take on this, my opinion on what’s going on. Firstly, and most importantly, very large agriculture firms (like Monsanto) make a lot of profits from rapeseed/Canola. They have genetically modified crops which is important to them because it allows them to patent the crop. They have versions that only they can sell. So, they sell the patented seeds, then they sell the pesticides (like “Roundup”) and the fertilizers that are needed to make the crop successful.
Next, large food companies buy the rapeseed crop back from the farmers, extract the oil in there processing plants, sell the oil into the biofuel and food markets, and sell the remaining rapeseed meal as animal feed. The large food and agriculture firms are also involved in animal farming, so this rapeseed meal as animal feed is also helping to fuel related industries that help generate their profits.
I can’t help but think that the farmers are just a pawn in the game of the big agriculture firms. My guess is that the farmers are just getting by financially as the big agriculture firms are making all the profits. These big companies are using the farmers to shoulder the risks of growing the crops while trapping them into a system (buying seed, pesticide and fertilizer from them, and then selling the crops back to them) from which they can’t easily escape.
Then, even worse, could be the biofuel industry. In 2012, governments subsidized biofuel to the tune of more than 20 billion USD. It must be a lot more today. This is even better for the big agriculture companies. Governments are subsidizing the business they are involved in and allowing them to make more profits.
Is biofuel really better for us? If it means covering the land with genetically modified yellow crops and enormous amounts of artificial pesticides and fertilizers? Surely the safer way to proceed is to reduce our requirements on energy in the first place (see Can I reduce fuel consumption by 10% ?).
What does it mean for me?
Firstly, I’m a bit worried about having large fields of yellow so close to where I live. They are most probably genetically modified and the farmers are almost certainly using large amounts of artificial pesticides (like “Roundup”) and fertilizers to keep the crops going. This can’t be good for the local environment near my home.
Every time I buy diesel fuel here in France, it seems like I’m actually buying about 30% biodiesel from rapeseed oil. I have very little real choice about this, but I’m supporting all those yellow monocultures just by buying fuel. All I can do in the short term is limit the amount of fuel I buy (Can I reduce fuel consumption by 10% ?).
Any food we see with “vegetable oil” as an ingredient could be rapeseed oil. They are not required to make this explicit. And, even worse, it could easily be genetically modified rapeseed oil – they are not required to label genetic modifications either. I don’t want to put unnatural molecules into my body, so I want to avoid genetically modified organisms, therefore I have to avoid anything that says it has “vegetable oil” in it – it’s most probably GMO rapeseed oil.
My wife recently bought some Hellman’s Mayonnaise when she was in England. I don’t eat mayonnaise and I was a little horrified that she bought it. I checked the label and it said “78% rapeseed oil”. Wow. It’s mostly rapeseed oil and it’s most likely genetically modified. I wonder what they mean on the front of the label when they say “Bring Out The Best” and “Real Mayonnaise” ?
Then I saw an advert on TV for “Flora Buttery”. Checking on the internet for the ingredients wasn’t easy, but eventually I found that its first ingredient is “Vegetable Oils (Seed Oils 82%)”. So it could easily be 82% genetically modified rapeseed oil as well. I’m also astonished how a company can get away with a product called “Flora Buttery” when it has absolutely nothing to do with butter. Are we that stupid?
I, for one, don’t want to eat rapeseed oil, ever. That might be hard because it’s so prevalent now, but it’s a worthy goal. I also don’t want yellow monocultures of genetically modified crops sustained by spraying “roundup” style pesticides all over them anywhere near where I live. I can’t help but think there must be a relation between all of this and increases in cancer and other diseases.
I’m happy to be corrected
As I said earlier, a lot of what I’ve written here is my version of things that I’ve read and learnt. If you think anything I’ve said is wrong or misleading, I’d be very happy for you to correct me. You can leave a comment below or send me an email directly to firstname.lastname@example.org