THE FATHER OF CANOLA
By George Siamandas
© George Siamandas
Baldur Stefansson is one of Manitoba’s most distinguished plant scientists and the father of the new breed of canola which he derived from selections of rapeseed. Stefansson’s father had come from Iceland in 1910 and settled in Vestfold in the Interlake between Lundar and Inwood. He was a cattle farmer. Baldur was born in April 26, 1917. The area was not very prosperous. The area’s soil lacks phosphates, as he would later discover. It was so bad the cows would chew the 2×4 lumber.
Baldur went to WW2 and when he returned decided against becoming a farmer. Why? Because he saw it as being too competitive. Every one of your neighbours is a competitor he maintains. And to get into farming takes a large investment. In the final analysis, the profit margin is very low. Instead, like many returning soldiers, he went to university, studied agriculture and settled on plant science. He earned an MA and a PhD.
PLANT SCIENCE INSTEAD OF FARMING
He became interested in finding new sources of edible oil. While hemp was an attractive possibility, Stefansson and his colleagues knew that the govt would not permit research with this plant. Instead they concentrated on rapeseed. He wanted to develop an edible oilseed for large-scale production on the Canadian prairie.
WHAT IS CANOLA?
Canola is the bright yellow crop, growing across the prairies. It is an oil seed. It came from selection of rapeseed, which is part of the mustard family. Rapeseed originated 2,000 years ago in India and was introduced to Asia during the time of Christ. It arrived in Europe in the 13th century. It became popular on the prairie because of its ability to grow in cooler climates. Grown for the oil contained in the seed, it was a particularly favoured lubricant because it could stick to metals in the presence of water. In 1936, a Saskatchewan farmer imported some rapeseed from Poland and began to grow it in Canada. It seemed to do well.
OVERCOMING PROBLEMS OF RAPESEED
Rapeseed had two difficulties in being utilised as edible oil. If it was to be for human consumption the amount of erucic acid had to be substantially reduced. And the by product of crushing which is used for livestock feed, had to be made more palatable by reducing anti-nutritive glucosinolates. Stefansson was able to do both. In 1974 he succeeded with the double low “Tower” variety of canola. And to differentiate it from rapeseed the new name canola was coined from “Canadian Oil.” The other choice was CanAbra, but the name was appropriated by a member of the committee who started an Alberta company with it.
WORK FOR CHEMICAL COMPANIES
After developing the in the double low “Tower” variety, Stefansson then began work for Calgene a corporate plant breeder that developed the round-up resistant variety of canola. Calgene was later bought out by the giant in plant varieties: Monsanto. Stefansson has no regrets about the work and how its value had remained with the companies. He was well paid as were literally hundreds of scientists and support staff for years while the company took the risk. He is happy his canola has allowed some farmers to be a little more productive and to be able to make a slightly better living.
He has won many awards over the years and a room in his modest house in Fort Garry now houses the collection. The Wolf prize from Israel, Order of the Buffalo Hunt, the Royal Bank etc. About two dozen in all. He is glad not to doing his plant breeding work in the corporate “dog eat farmer” environment of today.