The olive oil alternative

by Meyer Sosland
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Oilseed rape is a crop many farmers have not taken too seriously since its introduction a few decades ago. It has always been valuable as a break crop and helpful from an agronomic point of view, but not something that was worth a high level of inputs. In recent years, the surging demand for biodiesel has brought attention to rapeseed, but with prices for the crop now soaring, it is becoming a less feasible option as a biodiesel feedstock.

However, there is a growing understanding that rape oil is a much more valuable product, both in food and financial terms, than first realized.

"Rapeseed oil, which like olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fat, is a good and cheaper alternative to olive oil," according to the United Kingdom’s (U.K.) Food Standards Agency. "It is better to eat foods rich in monounsaturates (olive oil and rapeseed oil) and polyunsaturates (sunflower oil and soy oil), than foods rich in saturates," the agency’s website said.

Ian Munnery, commercial manager of United Oilseeds, a farmer-owned business that specializes in rapeseed oil, said demand is shifting from biofuels to food. "If you go to biodiesel factories, I doubt they would be running flat out on rape oil," he told World Grain. "The market has just clipped £360 ex-farm at harvest. With bonuses that could be £400. It doesn’t add up with biodiesel."

He reckoned that at those price levels the oil was coming out at over $2,000 per tonne. "The market keeps going up," he said.

Munnery cited a report that global rape oil stocks were at a four-year low and wondered how prices could be so high now if stocks were the same as in 2004. "A large part I suspect is speculation," he said. "A lot of farmers have sold ahead. In terms of farmer selling, I think it’s all dried up.

"The overwhelming demand for essential fatty acids is there," he said. "That also links to demand for (GMfree) animal feed."

Munnery said that as the market becomes more affluent, there is more emphasis on health and nutrition, including eating foods that are low in saturates.

"Rape and sunflower seed are both low in saturates at 5% or 6%, compared with palm at 48%," he said.

As part of this trend, big restaurant chains in Europe are using more rapeseed oil. "As the sophistication of the market changes, people will actively choose low saturates," he said.

Dr. Ian Bancroft of the Department of Crop Genetics at the John Innes Centre outlined other advantages of rapeseed oil. "It’s relatively high in linoleic and linoleic acid," he said. "Linolenic is one of the Omega 3 fatty acids, so you get all the health benefits, real and claimed, of that. It’s very low in saturated fatty acids. It’s really a very nice salad oil."

One downside to the high levels of linoleic acid, Bancroft said, was that it can make rape oil relatively thermally unstable. "There are people who are trying to develop lines with less polyunsaturated fatty acids so as to make it better in that application."

But overall, rapeseed oil is still better than many of the products that compete with it, said Bancroft. "The ones you get in the supermarket at the moment are better than most of the other oils you buy in terms of nutrients," he said.

There have been movements to sell rapeseed oil as a highquality product, with cold-pressed oils designed to compete with olive oil in the minds of consumers that are conscious of health and taste.

Although it has attracted a lot of attention, the high-quality rapeseed market remains somewhat limited, according to Munnery. "The cold-pressed brigade gets very excited, but it’s a very small market," he said.

One company that has done it is Yellow Fields, which produces oil from rapeseed grown in Northumberland, in northern England. "What people are used to is the solvent-extracted oil which tastes of nothing," co-director Alan Brewis told World Grain. "It’s just a frying medium. With cold-pressed oil, you’re getting the full taste of the brassica, the rapeseed, coming out. It becomes much more interesting."

In many ways, rape oil is much healthier than the competition. "It has half the saturates of olive oil and ten times the omega 3," he said.

Although the oil has been a success on a small scale, Brewis described the work of persuading consumers to accept rapeseed oil as an alternative to olive oil as an uphill struggle. "Olive oil has captured the market. It’s from the Mediterranean, which captures the imagination," he said. "When people think of rapeseed, they just think of endless yellow fields."

One problem is that, as demand for rapeseed grows, it becomes harder to produce enough. "Your actual source of key production of low-saturate oil such as sun and rape is finite," said Munnery. "The limit we face in the U.K. is productive area. There’s a limit globally. Disease becomes a major issue."

It is worth farmers spending more on fungicide and fertilizer to achieve higher yields, he said. "The return is going to be more with a high-input regime," Munnery said. "You’ve got the justification for throwing more fungicide at it."

He advised farmers against storing seed, particularly because of disease. "If you’re home saving, you’re propagating the problem," he said. "If they’re going to get high returns next year, they need certified seed. A lot of them used home-saved seed this year. It didn’t really work. A lot of farmers turned to home saving because it was cheap."

He also suggested that they should lock in prices early. "People are complacent about where this is going to go, which I think could be a mistake," he said. "Nobody wants to consider that. It’s just a bull run. If it stays high it, will be a major issue for the E.U.," he said. "It will have to consider securing supplies for domestic customers. Most of the E.U. rapeseed will be going to China."

Plant scientists at the John Innes Centre are looking at ways to increase oilseed rape yields. "We certainly are hoping that we will be part of the direction to do that," Lars Ostergaard, a researcher in the centre’s Department of Crop Genetics, told World Grain. "We’re working on pod shattering, which is a huge problem. The pods open prematurely in the field.

"It’s also a problem for future crops. It can lie dormant for years. At the moment, losses are on average 15% or 20%. I’ve talked to farmers who have lost 70% of their harvest because of a hail storm the day before they were due to harvest a nice, dry-looking crop."

Part of the problem is that rapeseed lacks development compared with longer-established crops. "It’s obviously a very young crop," he said. "It’s only been used in food for three or four decades. Wheat and barley have been used for thousands of years."

He contrasted the look of a field of rapeseed before harvest with cereals. "If you look at a field of cereals, it’s a dense layer, like a blanket. You could almost scoop it up," he said. "There’s a big difference between the two."

In his view, oilseed rape needs more work from plant breeders. "A lot of breeding and maybe, I would say, some GM technology to improve the crop would be highly beneficial," he said. WG

Chris Lyddon is World Grain’s European editor. He may be contacted at: