New research looking into which canola plants best harness the sun to increase yield

A University of Alberta researcher is screening hundreds of canola plants to see which best use the sun, to eventually to increase canola production in Alberta.

The researchers will also study the effects of heat and stress on the canola plants, due to this summer's heat

Linda Gorim, a University of Alberta researcher, will study 300 different types of canola plants to see what best uses photosynthesis. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)

A University of Alberta researcher is screening hundreds of canola plants to see which best use the sun, to eventually to increase canola production in Alberta.

Photosynthesis is the process by which plants convert light energy into chemical energy thus making their food.

Linda Gorim, a drought scientist and the Western Grains Research Foundation Chair in cropping systems, will be spending several years measuring photosynthesis in canola lines in Alberta, so producers can meet global demand.

"My mandate is to make sure that our farmers are growing their crops in a profitable, productive and sustainable way," Gorim told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"We are using a gadget in the field to measure these different lines and find out whether they have lines that have higher photosynthetic capacity."

In 2014, the Canola Council of Canada commissioned an independent analysis that predicted the global vegetable oil demand would grow to 250 million tonnes by 2025.

The council set a 10-year target to increase canola production by an average of 52 bushels per acre, for 26 million metric tonnes of production, to meet the estimated demand on the global market.

This target is why Gorim decided to look into ways to increase yield by studying the way the plant captures sunlight, she said.

There are four major canola crushing plants within the province, each producing canola oil and canola meal.

Alberta has produced roughly 30 per cent of Canadian canola from 2010 to 2020, according to data on the Canola Council of Canada website.

Alberta farmers harvested nearly 6.9 million acres of canola in 2017, but that total dropped to just over 5.7 million acres in 2020.

Saskatchewan farmers harvested 11.3 million acres of canola in 2020, while Manitoba farmers harvested nearly 3.4 million acres.

LISTEN | Using the sun to supercharge canola crops:

We'll hear from a U of A researcher who's looking into how sunshine can boost the canola yield for farmers. 5:27

In 2020, Alberta ultimately produced over 5.2 million tonnes of canola, and averaged 40.2 bushels per acre.

For the three-year project, Gorim is studying 300 different types of canola plants to see which ones optimize photosynthesis the most.

The gadget her team uses looks like a typical stapler and can be connected to an Android device. Researchers move around in the field, click on leaves and all the data automatically downloads to a computer. 

"You don't need to move around in the field with a piece of paper and add numbers," she said.

So far the researchers have collected data on 170 lines of canola, which they replicate nine times. They are looking at data from 540 plots this year, she said.

Gorim also studying impact of heat

The original purpose of the study is to look into photosynthesis. But Gorim's background as a drought scientist combined with this summer's hot weather opened another research opportunity: how heat and stress affect the plants. 

"[This] is not something that we had in our proposal," she said.

"This kind of fell on my feet. So now I'm not only screening these lines for photosynthesis, but also drought and heat stress concurrently."

Researchers will collect the preliminary data and summarize at the end of each year, Gorim said


Kashmala Fida Mohatarem is a reporter and associate producer with CBC Edmonton.