Canadian athlete and competitive rower Marnie McBean told last week’s Canola Council of Canada convention delegates that being a true champion means continuously pursuing improvement, even when you’re already at your best.
The three-time-gold Olympian and epitome of focus and unflinching drive was just 24 when she and teammate Kathleen Heddle first rowed to a gold medal win in the 1992 Barcelona games.
It’s an inspiring message that speaks to the canola industry, said Canola Council of Canada president Patti Miller in her own address to the 300 delegates at the 46th annual convention aptly themed ‘Go for Gold.’
“We are an industry full of fierce competitors and equally fierce collaborators,” she said. “It is that attitude that has transformed canola from a specialty crop to the No. 1 crop in Canada.”
The canola industry is on target to achieving its own goal of 15 millon tonnes of sustainable production and demand by 2015, said Miller who outlined key priorities of the CCC’s Growing Great 2015 strategic plan — increasing production, consumption and value of all products, securing market access, while increasing product quality and understanding across the entire industry about what it takes to be successful.
This past year saw many signs of progress, although it was also a year full of challenges, Miller said.
Signs of progress including growers in 2012 breaking their own production record, seeding 21.3 million acres. “They harvested our second-biggest crop ever,” she said. “That shows clear confidence by our growers.”
There are good reasons to be confident. Consumption of canola oil is on the rise worldwide, including a 41 per cent use in the U.S last year alone. The value of canola exports nearly doubled in 2012 over the year previous, from $1.58 billion to $3.1 billion.
The industry has already surpassed its 2015 target of 7.5 million in seed exports, reaching 8.3 million last year.
Domestic crush capacity continues to expand and keep pace with expanding acreage; 2012 saw a seed-processing plant opened at Lethbridge and a new crush plant at Camrose, a refinery added at Clavet plus a 25 per cent crush capacity expansion at Yorkton.
“That’s a bricks and mortar commitment and that is a clear vote of confidence from our crushers,” Miller said.
Meanwhile, meal exports are up by 10 per cent, including a fivefold increase in sales to Tongwei, China. Canada last year became the largest country to adopt a renewable biodiesel mandate at the national level.
But like any star athlete, Canada’s most valuable commodity crop, Canadian canola faces tough competition and formidable challenges.
More than 85 per cent of annual Canadian production is now destined for export as seed, oil or meal and the industry is highly susceptible to import-limiting trade barriers, including an increasing number of non-tariff barriers.
Progress is being made in trade agreements on a number of fronts, Miller said including a memorandum of understanding with China. There are also federal government efforts to bring global regulators and industry to the table on issues such as low level presence (LLP) and biotech product.
“We’ve seen success from our marketing efforts but it does not mean a thing if we do not keep doors to those markets open,” said Miller.
Production and yield issues are another major challenge faced.
Last year began with high expectations but “2012 was a heartbreaker in many ways,” Miller said, noting the yield robbers of heat, wind at harvest, aster yellows and sclerotinia that led to a disappointingly lower-than-expected volume harvest.
“It appeared that this would be our first year of achieving 15 million tonnes, but nature dealt us a difficult hand,” she said. “Nature reminded us that we do not hold all the cards no matter how strong our hand looks in the spring.”
But one delegate at the convention said he thinks the industry’s own push for more production is at the root of its production challenges.
Canola grower Wilfred Harder of Manitoba spoke up during the question-and-answer session with Miller, saying he doesn’t think 15 million tonnes is a sustainable amount of production.
“We’re already pushing our rotations beyond what we should be doing. I don’t think it is really good policy in terms of agriculture and in terms of farming,” said Harder.
Miller disagrees. “Fifteen million tonnes as sustainable production is possible. And I think more is possible,” she said in response to Harder’s remarks, later in an interview adding that the crop production teams are working very hard to find solutions to these agronomic challenges and get them into farmers’ hands.
“We’re getting a lot of research results off projects from the science cluster, and we’re learning a lot about what we need to do with more intensive rotation.”
Greg Meredith, assistant deputy minister for strategic policy with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, also addressed production challenges in his address to delegates.
“You’ve got some significant work to do on the agronomic front,” he told delegates. “And we’ve got to drive it through innovation. We’re going to need technology and technological improvements in order to deal with the need for enhanced yields.”
Meredith said government’s role in moving that forward is by helping to create the right kind of environment that spurs and rewards innovation and leads to breakthroughs in key areas such as yield increases and disease resistance.
“You’ve got to have the regulatory environment to approve novel traits, you’ve got to have an environment that encourages commercialization,” he said.
“Where government can play a role is making sure the policy and regulatory and legal environment provides those incentives.”