Business

Fighting for the Future of Canola With Genetic Engineering

Seed companies are engaging in a high-stakes effort to develop new clubroot-resistant seeds in order to protect Canada's $21 billion canola oil industry.

Mar. 5, 2018
By Daniel Dawson

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Fif­teen years since the emer­gence of clu­b­root dis­ease in Canada, seed pro­duc­ers and farm­ers are still strug­gling to com­bat the dis­ease in canola.

It almost becomes like a can­cer inside of the plant. It’s really, really dif­fi­cult to ever get rid of it com­pletely.- Stephen Strelkov, Uni­ver­sity of Alberta

Clu­b­root is a soil-borne pathogen that forms in the roots of canola. The oil (which is known both as canola and rape­seed oil) qual­ity of infected plants is not affected by the pres­ence of clu­b­root, but the yield is up to 50 per­cent lower and the dis­ease does even­tu­ally kill the plant.

It almost becomes like a can­cer inside of the plant,” Stephen Strelkov, a pro­fes­sor of agri­cul­ture at the Uni­ver­sity of Alberta, said at a recent lec­ture on the topic. It’s really, really dif­fi­cult to ever get rid of it com­pletely.”

Not only is the dis­ease hard to destroy, but it also lingers in the field for at least 15 years, accord­ing to Strelkov. Other sci­en­tists have said this fig­ure may be closer to 20 years.

As a result of this, Mon­santo, DowDuPont and Bayer AG are all engag­ing in a high-stakes effort to develop new clu­b­root-resis­tant seeds in order to pro­tect Canada’s $21 bil­lion canola oil indus­try. Accord­ing to the United States Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, canola oil is the third most pro­duced veg­etable oil.

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I think that genetic resis­tance, whether engi­neered or done by tra­di­tional means, is, in gen­eral, the best strat­egy for sus­tain­able dis­ease resis­tance,” said Lynn Epstein, a pro­fes­sor of plant pathol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis. Whether it will work or not depends, most impor­tantly, on exactly what gene is used.”

DowDuPont, which has one of the largest mar­ket shares in clu­b­root resis­tant canola seeds in Canada, has released a new seed this year. These new clu­b­root-resis­tant seeds will be used in the most heav­ily affected areas in order to pre­vent long-term dam­age to tra­di­tion­ally pro­duc­tive fields.

If you don’t have resis­tance, you can’t grow canola at all in some areas,” Igor Falak, a senior researcher at a regional unit of DowDuPont said in a recent inter­view. Com­pa­nies, such as DuPont, real­ize how impor­tant it is to get ahead of the clu­b­root prob­lem before it becomes even worse.

Com­pa­nies are very mind­ful of it because the con­se­quences are huge,” David Dzisiak, the North Amer­ica com­mer­cial leader in grains and oils, told Reuters. If farm­ers can’t grow their most prof­itable crop, we can’t sell it.”

Mean­while, at Mon­santo sci­en­tists are work­ing on cross­breed­ing canola plants with close rel­a­tives, includ­ing rutabaga, cab­bage and turnips. All of these plants have a nat­ural resis­tance to the dis­ease.

In Man­i­toba, one of the three Cana­dian provinces that have been hit the hard­est by clu­b­root, Mon­santo sci­en­tists have suc­cess­fully bred a hybrid canola-rutabaga plant. These sci­en­tists hope that this new hybrid could be a solu­tion.

The first gen­er­a­tions of a canola-by-rutabaga cross will look pretty wild,” Jed Chris­tian­son, one of Monsanto’s sci­en­tists work­ing on the breed­ing project, told Reuters. This is not the first time Mon­santo has used genetic engi­neer­ing to try and curb the dis­ease. The com­pany released its first clu­b­root-resis­tant canola seeds in 2009. How­ever, by 2012 the dis­ease had adapted and was found infect­ing plants grown from the sup­pos­edly resis­tant seeds as well.

That’s a very short period of time,” Chris­tian­son said. It was a bit alarm­ing.”

Strelkov has long called genetic engi­neer­ing the most effec­tive clu­b­root man­age­ment tool but is con­cerned after see­ing the dis­ease evolve so quickly.

This was a cause for con­cern,” he said. The emer­gence of new patho­types has made clu­b­root man­age­ment more dif­fi­cult.”

Oth­ers argue that farm­ers can­not solely rely on canola and must be more proac­tive in rotat­ing crops in order to keep the dis­ease at bay. In Alberta, another province heav­ily affected by the dis­ease, some coun­ties have banned canola from being planted in infected fields for the next three years.

If we aren’t putting in restric­tions, they’ll keep plant­ing canola and putting every­one else at risk,” Aaron Van Beers, the agri­cul­ture fore­man for Leduc County, which is located in Alberta, told Reuters.

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Accord­ing to research, 90 to 95 per­cent of clu­b­root spores are not viable after two years. How­ever, canola farm­ers in Alberta have learned that the last five to 10 per­cent of viable spores are still enough to wreak havoc.

Dan Orchard, an agron­omy spe­cial­ist in Alberta for the Canola Coun­cil of Canada, said farm­ers should wait four years after each canola crop before they plant it again.

The two-year canola rota­tion has been work­ing for years on the prairies,” he said at a recent event for canola pro­duc­ers, But not when it comes to clu­b­root. It needs that extra break.”

How­ever, for many farm­ers, this is a dif­fi­cult finan­cial deci­sion. Canola sells for dou­ble or triple the price of other crops. Some blame the rapid spread of the dis­ease on canola farm­ers, them­selves, who have been rapidly expand­ing the amount of space used to grow the lucra­tive crop.

We don’t really want to back off,” said Bill Crad­dock, a Man­i­toba canola farmer. There’s just more money in canola.”





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