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International researchers see a golden future for canola

As part of the International Rapeseed Congress 2023, participants, local growers and advisers visited the NSW Department of Primary Industries Wagga Wagga Agricultural Institute to view trials in progress and discuss research underway.
Photo: Mat Dunn

With more than 40 million hectares sown to canola (rapeseed) worldwide, speakers at the 16th International Rapeseed Congress 2023 (IRC 2023) in Sydney were positive about the future opportunities for this golden crop.

Global Council for Innovation in Rapeseed and Canola (GCIRC) president Rob Wilson said rapeseed maintained its position as the number two oilseed crop globally, a testament to the massive research, development and extension (RD&E) investments made into the crop in the past 50 years.

“Science and technology, research and researchers play critical roles in addressing existing and emerging challenges,” Mr Wilson said.

“IRC 2023 provides a platform to bring together the smartest minds to share and discuss the latest research to address the issues and the golden opportunities facing this remarkable crop.”

Rob Wilson standing at the podium. He is wearing a dark blue coat and mid blue tie. He has brown hair, glasses, and a grey moustache and goatee.

Global Council for Innovation in Rapeseed and Canola president Rob Wilson opened the congress. Photo: Giles Park

The international event, co-sponsored by GRDC, the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and a range of companies, attracted more than 500 delegates from 30 countries to Sydney during September to listen to 158 speakers addressing issues including:

  • genetics, genomics and breeding;
  • agronomy, physiology and simulation;
  • pests and diseases; and
  • product uses and markets.

It also allowed those working with rapeseed and canola to develop links with others from across the world.

The congress was preceded by a field day attended by more than 300 growers, congress participants and advisers and hosted by the NSW DPI at the Wagga Wagga Agricultural Institute.

Scientists recognised

Mr Wilson presented Australian researcher Dr Rod Mailer and German oilseed rape breeder Dr Martin Frauen with GCIRC Eminent Scientist Awards.

Dr Mailer, who worked at the Wagga Wagga Agricultural Research Institute for 35 years, published more than 60 scientific articles on canola research. His work has been cited more than 2000 times.

“Early publications included work with breeders and agronomists to improve canola varieties to suit the agronomic conditions of Australia,” Mr Wilson said.

Dr Mailer pioneered using DNA primers in Australia to discriminate between canola varieties.

His recent publications have explored anti-nutritional components in canola meal and improvements in canola protein for human consumption.

Dr Frauen is a highly respected winter oilseed rape breeder and a pioneer of hybrid rapeseed in Europe. He is on the board of the plant breeding company NPZ in Germany, and led several public-private research partnerships as the principal plant breeder at NPZ.

Research investment

GRDC managing director Nigel Hart said canola production in Australia had increased by about 187,000 tonnes a year, representing a yield increase of 2.7 per cent per year since 1985.

“Across Australia during the past three seasons, we have seen some exceptional records broken in total crop production and planting area,” Mr Hart said.

He said this success was the result of collective RD&E, market signals for growers to produce more grain, and growers adopting new tools to become more productive.

In the past 12 months, he said GRDC had invested an additional $9 million in new canola research. However, he said there were still challenges from pests, disease, climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

He invited scientists to partner with GRDC to help lift canola productivity through various gene technologies.

Canola vision

Australian Oilseeds Federation chair Rosemary Richards launched the vision for Australia’s canola industry to support its continued growth.

Canola Vision 2035 is about securing a sustainable future for the Australian canola industry and supporting the development of a larger, more diversified and resilient industry across a more profitable, connected and adaptable value chain,” Ms Richards said.

“It’s a call-out to industry, domestically and globally, to work together to enhance growth.”

Australian Oilseeds Federation chair Rosemary Richards and GRDC managing director with the Canola Vision statement.

Australian Oilseeds Federation president Rosemary Richards and GRDC managing director Nigel Hart. Photo: Giles Park

The vision is based on six pillars:

  • market diversification;
  • sustainability;
  • productivity and performance;
  • value chain;
  • innovation; and
  • influence.

Feed and fuel

Dr Maurice Moloney, founder and managing partner from Canadian company AgritecKnowledge, said the introduction of herbicide-tolerant canola had led to greater adoption of no-till in Canada.

He said this had resulted in net-zero emissions in Saskatchewan’s crop sector by 2016 due to soil carbon retention.

Another agronomic trait in canola that has made a difference for growers, he said, was the development of pod shatter resistance.

“This trait is worth over $100 million annually to Canadian farmers,” he said.

But one of the most innovative developments involved the metabolic engineering of lipid biosynthetic pathways to produce a terrestrial source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acid oils such as DHA, EPA and ALA.

“This has been a long-standing collaboration between CSIRO and Nuseed,” he said. “The goal has been to produce oils that emulate the fatty acid profile of fish oils.”

GRDC provided important R&D co-investment in the development of this novel canola oil.

He said this provided a nearly inexhaustible source of these healthy oils, relieving the relentless environmental pressure on wild-caught fish such as anchovy, the traditional source of these important dietary lipids.

Farmed fish, with the nutritional quality of wild-caught fish, could be fed Aquaterra® Advanced Omega-3 Oil to reduce the reliance on anchovy.

More information: [email protected]

Maurice Moloney presenting at the congress in blue suit and tie. He has a goatee and glasses.

AgritecKnowledge founder and managing partner Dr Maurice Moloney. Photo: Giles Park

Electric vehicles

University of North Carolina Professor Nick Piggott, whose talk was sponsored by GRDC, spoke about the impact on corn and soybean demand of the US transitioning towards electric vehicles.

He said the US government’s biofuels and crop insurance policies had benefited corn and soybean production in the US.

“The Energy Policy Act 2005, Renewable Fuel Standards, and Energy Independence Act of 2007 led to a substantial increase in the percentage of corn used in fuel production – from 14.2 per cent in 2005 to 35.6 per cent in 2021,” he said.

“These policies also led to a substantial increase in soybean oil used in biofuel, from 8.1 per cent in 2005 to 43.7 per cent in 2022.”

Professor Piggott said the trend in additional soybean oil for fuel production and use had been at the expense of food demand.

He said three main plant oilseeds were consumed in the US: soybean, canola and palm oil.

“Soybean oil consumption has been on an upward trend driven by large gains in industrial use as biodiesel but a decline in food use,” he said.

“Palm and canola oil have benefited from the reduction in soybean food use.”

In terms of the vehicles available in the US, he said about 88 per cent were currently powered by internal combustion engines, eight per cent by biofuels and only three per cent by hybrid electric.

“When you look at new vehicle sales data in 2021, 56 per cent of electric vehicles were hybrid electric,” he said. “That makes sense because people want to diversify without having to worry about ‘range anxiety’.”

About 32 per cent of new vehicle sales were pure electric vehicles. The plug-in hybrid electric, where there is an internal combustion engine that can make use of electricity and biodiesel, represented only 12 per cent of sales.

“One of the biggest challenges that nobody is talking about is how can Americans overcome the ‘splash and go’ convenience of filling up their car with fuel when there are long miles to drive, versus plug in and wait. Range anxiety is also real.”

For example, an increase in demand for soybean oil for biodiesel would drive soybean oil prices higher and lead to more crushes to satisfy oil demand. However, without an increase in demand for meal, the additional crush would lead to lower meal prices unless there were additional markets.

Model developed

Professor Piggott developed a model and described the impact on canola oil demand if there was a 10 per cent decline in US biofuel production.

“When there is a 10 per cent decline in US biofuel production, under the assumption that demand for electric vehicles will reduce demand for biofuel, soybean oil production only declines by 1.3 per cent,” he said.

“Domestic demand declines by 9.5 per cent, which is immediately diverted to food (3.4 per cent) and exports (9.4 per cent). The result is a price decline in the US by 7.3 per cent, which is important for canola.”

The other implication was that soybean meal production declined by 1.3 per cent, resulting in a 3.8 per cent price increase and a reduction in exports of 5.7 per cent. The impact overall was a 1.7 per cent decline in soybean prices.

For corn, he said, the model showed ethanol production declined 2.1 per cent, domestic demand fell 7.7 per cent and the price declined 5.2 per cent.

Corn used in ethanol would reduce by 2.1 per cent, with production diverted to feed (0.5 per cent), food (0.2 per cent) and exports (0.9 per cent).

For canola in the US, the model showed that when there was a 10 per cent reduction in biofuels and ethanol, soybean oil was diverted into food use (plus 3.4 per cent), and soybean oil became cheaper (7.3 per cent).

Accordingly, it would lead to a five per cent reduction in demand for canola oil in the US.

Canola markets in other countries might also be impacted with an estimated increase in US soybean oil exports of 9.4 per cent.

More information: [email protected]

Canola protein

Protein Industries Canada director of programs Lisa Campbell discussed innovations in canola protein and how the next generation of products would make canola more important globally.

She said soybeans and peas dominated the plant proteins market.

However, many companies did not want to use soy, she said, because of allergies, leaving them with peas and, to a lesser extent, faba beans.

Ms Campbell described an $11.8 million Protein Industries Canada project, with co-investment from Botaneco™, Corteva Agriscience™ and Rowland Farms, that involved using canola meal to create high-value aquaculture feed.

The product, Alofin™, two years from commercial release, is a concentrated product containing 75 per cent protein from canola.

She said research on salmon had shown excellent effects on growth and palatability.

Another project involved a $27.7 million co-investment with Corteva Agriscience™, Bunge and Botaneco™.

The work, she said, aimed to create a hybrid canola seed with increased protein content and less fibre to close the gap between canola meal and soybean meal.

“We can’t improve the protein at a cost to the oil,” she said. “They’ve made significant progress and are getting close to closing the protein gap.”

She said these improvements should drive increased inclusion of canola meal in pig, poultry and warm-water fish feeds.

More information: [email protected]

Nitrogen use efficiency

Professor Henning Kage, from the Christian-Albrechts University in Germany, discussed how his team had identified two key traits to improve oilseed rape nitrogen use efficiency.

“What we should strive for is to produce higher yields with less nitrogen,” he said. “Breeding already improved this trait, and crop management is also an important tool.”

An option to increase the nitrogen use efficiency of oilseed rape, Professor Kage said, was to plant a legume crop before the oilseed rape. However, there was still a gap in nitrogen use efficiency and breeding should strive to close that gap.

At the Hohenschulen Experimental Farm, located in a prominent winter oilseed rape growing region in northern Germany, different oilseed rape cultivars were examined to determine their nitrogen use efficiency, he said.

Simulations with phenotyped cultivars matched field observations of biomass and green area index and allowed the trait effects on nutrient use efficiency to be understood in more detail and modelled.

The work showed two traits - ‘specific leaf area pre-booting’ and ‘stem critical nitrogen concentration pre-booting’ - were associated with improved nitrogen use efficiency. This was because the plants were able to take up nitrogen before winter, which reduced nitrogen loss via leaching.

Another finding was that newer hybrid cultivars could produce higher yields with lower nitrogen inputs. The newer hybrids also produced lower greenhouse gas emissions.

More information: [email protected]

Machine learning

Wallace Cowling, principal plant breeder at NPZ Australia and professor at the University of Western Australia, said machine learning had the potential to be used to summarise and model large datasets.

“In one talk, machine learning was shown to predict the best parents for use in hybrids,” Professor Cowling said. “It is also used in flowering time models at CSIRO and elsewhere, which appears to be progressing well.”

He said this technology allowed breeders to predict the flowering time of their future hybrids or inbred lines. This would be useful for Australia, which had distinct and large-ranging climatic variations where different flowering times were needed.

Other presentations discussed how new traits could be found in other species to confer pod shatter tolerance to canola.

In the future, Professor Cowling said stress tolerance would be an important part of the canola industry’s breeding programs.

“We will have to collaborate on innovative research projects between the public and private sectors to improve the stress tolerance of canola varieties.”

More information: [email protected]

Pests and diseases

Professor Jacqui Batley from the University of Western Australia said that while club root, Sclerotinia and blackleg were existing problematic canola diseases, other emerging diseases could potentially become bigger issues in the future. These diseases included ring spot, Fusarium, turnip yellows virus and white leaf spot.

“For Sclerotinia, we could see some good progress. There were a few talks about identification of resistance, and there’s certainly progress being made around that,” she said.

“There were also talks about a leaf mimic mutant and genetic analysis to understand the resistance.”

She said keynote presentations focused on how blackleg was managed in Australia.

“We are seeing changes in farming practices, and this is changing the epidemiology of the disease. Sowing is now earlier than previously, which means we are seeing less stem canker and more upper canopy infection,” she said.

“There were talks about resistance groups and how growers are rotating these in Australia, followed by presentations by researchers from other countries and how they are applying Australian knowledge.”

She said other researchers spoke about how wild Brassicas could offer donor genes to confer resistance to varieties when current tolerance breaks down.

For insects, Professor Batley said insecticide bans had huge implications in Europe.

Flea beetles, she said, were a problematic pest. Researchers presented work on alternative management strategies, which would be important if existing insecticides were banned in Australia.

Presentations on intercropping involved the sowing of other crop species around the edge of canola crops, so insects were drawn to them, not the canola crop.

Nonetheless, there was concern that if the sacrifice crop was radish, it could cause club root.

“We need to be careful that management practices recommended for one pest or disease problem do not affect something else,” she said. “And there needs to be integration between different groups to manage all pests and diseases more effectively.”

More information: [email protected]

Products, uses and markets

AGRENEW managing director Dr Allan Green said the mission in front of all researchers was how to move to net zero emissions.

“The implications are massive. We must replace all the petroleum currently used to reach net zero,” Dr Green said.

While electric vehicles would no doubt help reduce most of the five billion tonnes of petroleum used globally, he said there would still be almost a billion tonnes of liquid transport fuels needed to supply the aviation and marine sectors because they would remain dependent on liquid fuel.

“I think that amount of renewable fuel is within reach for supply from agricultural feedstocks, and our industry will face a decade of massive opportunity and disruption,” he said.

“Until now, we’ve focused predominantly on food production in agriculture, but agriculture is the most scalable, lowest-cost, most competitive source of renewable carbon.”

He said the canola industry could play a big part by increasing the oil content in the seed. “And there are increasing opportunities for related winter-hardy, short-season Brassica oilseeds to be produced as cover crops between summer-grown food crops.”

There was also technology being developed to produce oil in the vegetative parts of plants. This involved the manufacture of triglycerides in leaves and roots, not just the seed.

“That opens up all crops to be production platforms for oil, which could play out in the next five to 10 years,” he said.

More information: [email protected]

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