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TITLE:  GM crops muddying field of canola production
        Seed has been altered for pharmaceutical, industrial purposes
SOURCE: Edmonton Journal / Calgary Herald, Canada, by Dan Lazin'id=e8928524
DATE:   March 20, 2003

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GM crops muddying field of canola production
Seed has been altered for pharmaceutical, industrial purposes

The new diversity of canola is reflected in the fact Tony Marshall, who
makes one of the most distinctive canola oils in North America, can't
grow the crop anymore.

Highwood Crossing, the Aldersyde farm owned by Marshall and his wife
Penny, makes the continent's only coldpressed canola oil, a product Tony
Marshall says is much closer to an extra-virgin olive oil than a jug of
Crisco. You'll drop just shy of $200 for 20 litres.

"We're selling into the really high-end restaurants, places that have $35
and $40 entrees." It's fresh, it's alive, it has flavour and colour, and
those are all things you don't associate with canola oil. The whole idea
of getting something that was in the seed on Monday and in the chef's
hands on Friday - that blows buyers away."

The Marshalls' oil, meant more for use on salads or in soups than for
deepfrying spring rolls, is pressed only once at low temperature, instead
of the two or three hot presses a commercial oil sees. The cold-press
process means less yield from the seed, but a completely different
quality of oil. Even refrigerated, it will only last a year.

But the certified organic canola from which Highwood Crossing extracts
the oil can't be grown in crop-crowded Aldersyde for fear of cross-
contamination with neighbouring fields, most of which now carry a
genetically modified version of the plant.

"As a result, we have to buy it from other certified organic farmers who,
either because of the size of their farms or their geographical location,
can guarantee that they're free from contamination."

It's been five years since he grew his own canola. His last shipment came
from a farmer up in the Peace Country.

"About 80 per cent of the canola produced in Alberta is herbicide-
tolerant canola. Most of that is genetically modified," Alberta
Agriculture's Keith Topinka reports.

Better yields, returns from GM crops 

The genetically modified crop gives farmers better returns on their land.

And hybrid canola, a cross between two parental lines, whether GM or not,
results in yields increased by 25 or 30 per cent, explains Phil Thomas, a
southern Alberta oilseed crop-production consultant.

"We're going to see an awful lot more hybrids grown," he predicts. About
a fifth of the province's current canola is hybrid. Thomas foresees that
figure rising to 50 per cent.

That all makes for a dizzying variety of canola crops, which troubles not
only users of organic plants, like Highwood Crossing - organic canola
accounts for only about one per cent of the provincial yield - but also
new forays into specialty canolas.

Thomas describes one that allows for a normal-consistency margarine made
without hydrogenation. No introduction of hydrogen means no creation of
unhealthy trans-fatty acids.

Growers of such crops, says Topinka, "want to make sure they remain
separate from other canola, otherwise the extra value in their product is

Some studies suggest a couple hundred metres' separation between fields
is sufficient to avoid cross-contamination.

Others say three kilometres is safe.

At least for the near future, farmers won't have to worry about
contamination from canola modified for pharmaceutical use. In
laboratories, canola has been altered for medicinal and industrial use,
but growers have vowed not to introduce such potentially dangerous
contamination, Topinka says.

"There is a lot of caution on the part of industry and of the government,
because of course you wouldn't want to have a pharmaceutical in the
product if you're going to put it on your salad."

Even regular canola has alternative uses in its future.

A University of Alberta researcher has turned canola into a biodegradable
plastic. As well, the industry is lobbying Ottawa to make a canola
additive mandatory in diesel. The sulphur pollutants in diesel can be
reduced by between 60 and 90 per cent, but the more sulphur that's
removed, the drier the fuel becomes, wearing out the engine.

That effect can be counteracted by the canola additive, making a "biodiesel."

"It doesn't take very much of this canola additive into diesel fuel to
increase the longevity of engines by up to 40 per cent," Thomas says. If
legislated, the additive would mean additional canola sales of about
250,000 tonnes, compared to seven million tonnes normally produced by the
West. The increase would be worth about $90 million at current prices.

First, though, the industry must recover from last summer's drought,
which halved the yield in the Prairies.

A recent canola-industry conference in Ottawa projected six million
tonnes of crop from the West this year - one million tonnes short - worth
a total of about $2.2 billion at current prices.

Alberta's share is just under 30 per cent. Those figures compare
favourably with the $529 million in sales that provincial farmers posted
in 2000.

Once the industry is back on top of demand, it can try moving into an
unlikely foreign market - Iran.

"They're very short on oilseeds and they're an importing country. They
were looking at a variety of different vegetable oils and decided that
canola best fit their society," Thomas explains.

Canada's contribution might be about a half-million tonnes, almost $200
million. The U.S. share would be nil.

"There's a political issue there," Thomas says simply. 


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