Pod check: In the springtime, when Canadian farmers Herbert, Kevin and Marc Serfas survey the rapeseed plants on their farm, Iron Springs, the sea of yellow blossoms they see brings smiles to their faces. “Rapeseed flowers just put you in a good mood,” says Kevin Serfas. The farmers will have to wait a few more months to get really excited: By summer, the flowers will turn into pods, and the flowers’ black seeds, which contain precious oil, will be ready for harvesting. The fact that rapeseed is now the second largest oilseed crop after soybeans is largely due to the efforts of plant breeders. They have created a variety of rapeseed that contains significantly fewer bitter substances, such as erucic acid, which had previously made rapeseed oil unpalatable – and even a health concern – until 1974. “That’s why rapeseed oil was insignificant in the market for a long time,” explains Andree-Georg Girg, Global Crop Manager for Oilseeds at Bayer. “This essentially changed with canola varieties.” The word ‘canola’ is a contraction that stands for Canadian oil, low acid. This oil comes from Canada, the world’s largest producer of rapeseed.
Rapeseed’s value was proven when it became possible to breed varieties with a low gluconsinolate content within rapeseed meal. Since the mid-1980s, these ‘00’ varieties have been grown, and have been used as a protein carrier in animal feed. Thus, the introduction of canola put these yellow-flowered rapeseed plants on the road to success, and they have continued to flourish ever since.
The step-by-step transition to an economy free of carbon dioxide will not be possible without vegetable oils.
The total land area used for growing rapeseed worldwide has more than quadrupled to around 35 million hectares. Rapeseed oil production has increased almost tenfold. With a harvest of 72 million metric tons, rapeseed production achieved an all-time high in 2014. “The crop yields in Canada and the European Union were the main contributors,” says Dieter Bockey, a spokesperson at the Union for the Promotion of Oil and Protein Plants (UFOP). For the first time in the EU, alone, more than 24 million metric tons of rapeseed were produced. In Central Europe, it is primarily winter rapeseed that is grown as it needs cold temperatures to blossom and build pods. Its seeds are sown in autumn and it is harvested in early summer. “Summer rapeseed is cultivated exclusively in Canada, Australia and India,” adds Bockey.
Rapeseed is now recognized as one of the healthiest oils. Its high level of monounsaturated fat makes it a popular feature in kitchens all over the world. “Rapeseed oil is in especially high demand in Asian markets. Fast-food chains are also increasingly turning to this healthy cooking oil,” explains Girg. Bayer is working on and researching varieties of rapeseed that have even further benefits. With the brand InVigor™, plant experts have created new varieties with special properties. “We now have started to bring the success we have already achieved with InVigor in Canada to Europe,” adds Girg. Bayer offers a rapeseed variety that has an especially high oleic acid content, for example. The benefit: Oil that is pressed from this rapeseed variety is highly resistant to heat and remains stable during processing. Fat hardening – which would produce unhealthy trans fatty acids – is not necessary. This rapeseed variety is also referred to as “HOLL,” which stands for “high oleic, low linolenic” and means that this variety of rapeseed has a high oleic acid content but only a small amount of linolenic acid.
Cultivation and Harvesting of Rapeseed in the EU
With the newly created hybrid rapeseed variety ‘InV 1010’, Bayer has developed a high-yield variety that both has a high oil content and meets agricultural demands. ‘InVigor L140P’ further offers benefits like a shatter-resistant pod to reduce yield losses. “We are currently introducing the high-performance varieties in various European countries,” explains Girg. In France, for example, Bayer experts have set the target of being among the country’s top suppliers of rapeseeds by 2020. In order to achieve this, Bayer plans to bring a regionally adapted rapeseed variety to France each year to establish the InVigor portfolio in this country.
“Trust in InVigor is very high in Canada, and that motivates us for the imminent challenge we now face in Europe. Success here is not a given, however,” says Girg. Today, simply offering a better variety is not enough. Competition is healthy – there are more than 200 varieties of rapeseed in Germany alone – and Bayer’s seeds will have to prove themselves against all competing products. Polish rapeseed farmers have already used the new Bayer seeds: The first growing season in 2014 resulted in very strong harvests of winter rapeseed. “The most important property that we look for when selecting new varieties is the maximum potential yield,” says Stanislaw Szpara, a consultant for agricultural matters with AGRO-AS in Poland.
In order to deliver truly beneficial varieties, the Life Science experts at Bayer utilize their wide-ranging scientific experience. In 2009, they deciphered the rapeseed genome in cooperation with two public research institutes – BGI (formerly known as the Beijing Genomics Institute), located in Shenzhen, China, and the University of Queensland in Australia – as well as with the Dutch biotech company Keygene, based in Wageningen. This genome discovery created a crucial foundation for the development of new rapeseed varieties. Currently, in an established breeding center in the Belgian city of Ghent, plant specialists are working on giving the oilseed even better properties and adapting them to further regional growing areas. “We want to breed varieties with improved grain yield, oil content and high 1,000 kernel weight, but we also try to achieve uniform flowering and ripening. The seed’s resistance against fungal diseases, such as phoma or sclerotinia, is also important,” says Benjamin Laga, a Bayer geneticist in Ghent, explaining the complexity of research goals. While European breeders essentially pursue the same goals as their Canadian colleagues, due to different climate zones, the properties of European rapeseed have to be developed differently. “In southern France, varieties require a different stability of the pods than they would in Canada, where there are different wind conditions and temperatures,” Laga explains. And the soil – ranging from clay to light, sandy soil – also affects breeding goals.
The most important property that we look for when selecting new varieties is the maximum potential yield.
Rapeseed is also used as a raw material for biodiesel. This has led to even more fields being used for the crop in Europe. However, the European Union has set a goal of limiting biofuel production from food crops such as rapeseed, corn and soybeans to more strictly regulate greenhouse gas emissions. “Policy-makers have yet to specify what subsidies can be expected for biofuel after 2020,” states Bockey. “If market access to the European Union is blocked, the European biodiesel industry will have to find new markets abroad.” However, as Bockey notes, “The step-by-step transition to an economy free of carbon dioxide using renewable energy sources will not be possible without vegetable oils.”
Whether as fuel, as a renewable raw material or a basic product for the food and crop/feed industry, rapeseed is versatile. Of the almost 10 million tons of rapeseed oil produced during the 2014-15 crop year, 7 million tons were used for technical purposes and another 2.6 million tons were used for food production. Should the demand in Europe continue to rise, Girg is optimistic about what will happen: “With our diverse portfolio of different varieties and our experience from Canada, we are well prepared,” he says. “Consumers will ultimately contribute to our success if they opt for the healthier rapeseed oil.”
Hybrid Breeding: Strong Parents, Higher Yields
Plant experts are now turning to hybrid rapeseed seeds, because they offer the greatest chances of good yields. To obtain a hybrid variety that delivers high yields or more nutritious oil, breeders must first develop purebred male and female plant lines with the desired genes. The father plants produce pollen to pollinate the mother plants. The father plant is responsible for pollination; only the seed from the female plant is used to grow the high-yield hybrid plant.
Towards A Strong Future
In order to supply European farmers with adapted varieties, Bayer has set up a new treatment plant for rapeseed in Monheim, Germany. The European Oilseed Processing Center began operations at the end of September 2015. New hybrid seeds are processed and treated so they can develop in the fields into strong plants with high yields. “Producing high-quality seeds is only half of the picture, of course: The rapeseed harvest is still under threat without the right plant protection program in place as there are countless pests that take a liking to the flowers, pods and seeds,” says Girg. That’s why Bayer offers a crop protection package, so rapeseed farmers can smile even wider when harvest time comes around. In the future, high-tech methods will help farmers to ensure the success of their bright yellow fields. “Bayer is a pioneer when it comes to digital diagnostic tools for rapeseed plants – to identify pests at an earlier stage, for example, or to produce yield maps and stocking densities,” Girg continues. “The first projects are already up and running in Canada – digitization will also give these yellow flowers a boost in Europe.”