'We can't eat our way out of this problem': Buying canola oil won't offset China's cuts
Producers still welcome the gesture, and canola oil is good for you
An online push for Canadians to buy more canola products can't begin to replace China's appetite for roughly four million tonnes of raw seed a year — but canola farmers and industry representatives say every sale and sign of support counts for something.
"It's heartwarming," canola farmer Lane Stockbrugger said from his farm near Englefeld, Sask. Stockbrugger, who is the chair of Saskatchewan's canola development commission, plans to seed 2,000 acres of canola this spring.
Social media posts encourage Canadians to "buy local" and "support farmers" by purchasing store products that contain canola oil, such as cooking oil, margarine, shortening, mayonnaise and dressings. Stockbrugger's sister lives in Calgary, and he says the China dispute prompted her friends to inquire about buying canola cooking products.
"It makes the hair on my neck stand up a bit to hear that people in urban areas and rural areas want to show us that support."
The Canadian-developed oilseed, known for its picturesque yellow flowers, was developed by prairie plant scientists nearly half a century ago using traditional plant breeding techniques. It was then given the name "canola" using "can" from Canada.
In the decades since, it's become a major crop for Canadian farmers.
But 43,000 canola producers are now facing market uncertainty and dropping prices after their largest seed customer, China, barred shipments from two major Canadian canola companies — Richardson International and Viterra — saying they had found pests in some shipments.
Problem is selling seed, not oil
With a population of 1.4 billion, China buys 40 per cent of Canada's canola seed, worth about $2.7 billion.
"The Chinese market for seed is larger than the next three major markets combined: the United States, Mexico and Japan," said Canola Council of Canada president Jim Everson.
When news of the ban on Viterra was announced, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau defended the quality of Canadian canola and said he may send a high-level delegation to China in an effort to resolve the bans on Canadian canola.
Anytime we can go local, we will, to support our farmers.- Dale MacKay, Saskatoon restaurateur
A push for Canadians to buy more cooking oil is encouraging for farmers, but won't have a real impact — for two reasons.
One, Canada's population of about 37 million is far too small to consume enough canola products to offset the loss of the Chinese market. Two, there isn't a problem selling refined canola oil. The challenge is selling raw seed.
"We can't eat our way out of this problem," Richard Gray, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Saskatchewan, said.
Canada's 14 crushing and refining plants are already working at capacity, or nearly so, churning out canola oil and meal. The largest customer for those products is the United States, and the oil often ends up back on Canadian store shelves as an ingredient in food products, such as potato chips.
It would be impossible for Canadian processing plants to suddenly absorb and process millions of tonnes of extra raw seed that was rejected by China, no matter how eager Canadians are to snap up canola products.
Still, it's worth the effort, says an award-winning Saskatchewan chef.
Dale MacKay, a former winner of Top Chef Canada and Saskatoon restaurateur, ditched olive oil and butter in favour of canola oil in his restaurants years ago. He said he prefers the lighter, more neutral flavour of canola oil and its ability to withstand high temperatures without burning.
In light of the recent trade dispute with China, MacKay said it's time for more casual cooks to buy local.
"Anytime we can go local, we will, to support our farmers," MacKay said. "That goes for lentils, beans, pulses, really anything our farmers are farming, we try to promote."
Brian Innes, a vice-president with the Canola Council of Canada, says the food processing industry is so integrated in North America, with canola being shipped over the border multiple times for processing and packaging, that Canadian consumers shouldn't get too hung up on the address listed on a bottle of canola oil.
"They can rest assured that most of the canola oil, whether it's labelled a product of Canada or not, most of it is coming from Canada," Innes said.
There are some smaller private labels that carry that "Canada Brand" to certify it's grown, processed and bottled in Canada
In central Alberta, Pleasant Valley Oil Mills crushes 60 tonnes of canola every day. All of it is purchased directly from local farmers. The company is automating its bottling line, so it's not producing its cold-pressed canola cooking oil for store shelves at the moment, but it is providing canola oil for dog food, such as that sold by Champion Petfoods.
Pleasant Valley's president, Kyle Makila, appreciates the "buy Canadian" movement and says it's an opportunity to educate consumers about the health benefits of low-cholesterol canola oil, which Agri-Food Canada says has "the least saturated fat of any culinary oil."
Public awareness, political pressure
While there are many non-food uses of canola, found in everything from cosmetics to printing inks and biofuels, it would be difficult for Canadian consumers to source canola in those products.
But producers and canola boosters are grateful for the support at a time when it's hard to determine what the next year will look like.
Innes says the Canola Council of Canada appreciates that Canadians want to buy more product, even though it can't offset the loss of the Chinese market.
"It's not going to save the market, but it is important, because we need to understand the value of canola to our country," he says. "So efforts around raising awareness … those are wonderful efforts."
Innes says Canadians can put pressure on the federal government to resolve the issue with China.