Minogue: Biotech gets its due at international rapeseed forum

Saskatoon — How important is biotechnology to Prairie farmers? On his farm, Saskatchewan farmer Maurice Delage says, the net profit from canola is about $100 per acre, making it his most profitable crop most years.

Delage, who now farms at Indian Head and was CEO of Aventis Crop Sciences (now Bayer CropScience) in North America until 2001, was a natural choice to speak to delegates at the 14th annual International Rapeseed Congress in Saskatoon this week.

While they’re very different plants — especially in their end-use products — canola and rapeseed are forever linked by their very similar appearance and long shared history.

Canola, developed in the 1970s, was the result of plant breeders’ work to remove “undesirable” levels of erucic acid and glucosinolates from rapeseed oil and meal, thus creating the raw material for what’s now a common cooking oil in kitchens worldwide.

From there, canola carved out its own place in Canada’s economy. “The canola industry today accounts for somewhere between $19 billion and $20 billion in the Canadian economy and about 250,000 jobs,” Delage said.

Without biotechnology, he added, “this could not have happened.”

Developments in biotech increased canola yields and gave farmers tools to control weeds and disease, allowing canola to become a crucial and stable part of minimum-tillage cropping operations across the Prairies.

Top canola researchers, specialists and agronomists from around the world are in Saskatoon this week to attend this international conference hosted by Saskatchewan bioscience industry association Ag-West Bio and the Canola Council of Canada.

Because the event, which ends Thursday, only happens once every four years, they refer to it as the “Olympics of the rapeseed/canola industry.”

“It’s going very well so far,” said Wilf Keller, Ag-West Bio’s CEO. “We have about 900 delegates from 32 countries here.”

Of the 900 delegates, 360 are from Canada, 150 from China, and another 100 from Germany, making this a truly international gathering, with a very full agenda. “We have 175 speakers covering every aspect of research and development in canola.”

The conference also includes sold-out tours of fields and local research infrastructure.

Delegates are sharing information about technical aspects of biotechnology, making connections for future collaboration and making plans for future canola developments.

Leeann Minogue is editor of Grainews. Follow her at @GrainMuse on Twitter.

Saskatoon-based AAFC research Dr. Isobel Parkin said the first steps in uncovering the Brassica genome were made in the 1930s. In 2000, a genome closely related to canola was sequenced, and become the most completely annotated plant genome. (Leeann Minogue photo)
An unusual sex life may spell the extinction of the deadly African sleeping sickness parasite, which threatens millions of people in West and Central Africa, an international team of scientists said Jan. 27. The parasite, called T.b. gambiense, has not had sex for thousands of years and is now made up entirely of asexual clones descended from a single ancestor. “We’ve discovered that the parasite causing African sleeping sickness has existed for thousands of years without having sex and is now suffering the consequences of this strategy,” said Willie Weir, bioinformatician at the University of Glasgow. “Theoretically... the predicted consequence of this is that it will become extinct in the long term,” added Weir, who was lead author of the study published in the scientific journal, eLife. Sexual reproduction shuffles up an organism’s DNA — the building blocks of life — creating genetic diversity and eliminating undesirable mutations, helping a species survive. “In the near to medium term... identifying this weakness in the parasite could help researchers find ways to develop new forms of treatment for sleeping sickness,” Weir added. The parasite is spread through the tsetse fly, and affects people living in rural areas in 24 countries in West and Central Africa. Once a person is infected, it can lie dormant for years before symptoms start to develop, damaging their nervous system and eventually causing a coma if left untreated. The later stages of the disease are treated using chemicals which are difficult to administer and have potentially dangerous side-effects. It can be treated more easily if diagnosed early on. The parasite “jumped” from animals into the human population within the last 10,000 years, at a time when livestock farming was developing in West Africa. The most recent major outbreak of the disease began in the 1970s and lasted until the late 1990s. The WHO has targeted it for elimination as a public health problem by 2020.
Dr. Hanzhong Wang of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences said only 28 per cent of China's demand for vegetable oil was met by domestic supply in 2013-14. Chinese researchers, he said, are working with canola genetics to increase yields, increase oil content and make plants more adaptable to mechanization. (Leeann Minogue photo)
Tsetse flies spread the parasite that causes African sleeping sickness. photo: Thinkstock


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