Derek Penner was an infant when canola, a healthier derivative of rapeseed, was first developed in 1974 at the University of Manitoba in collaboration with Agriculture Canada.
Last month, the youthful president of Monsanto Canada helped open Monsanto’s new $12 million canola breeding centre near the University of Manitoba.
“It embodies Monsanto’s very best in research and technology and allows us to bring new products to the market faster,” Penner told guests at a Nov. 23 opening of the 29,000-square-foot Canada Breeding Centre
“That is important to both our business and our customers. If you leave here with one thought today, I want it to be that canola is clearly a key area for Monsanto’s business and Monsanto is making the required investment to make a difference in the industry for Canadian farmers.”
The centre, dedicated solely to the development of new canola hybrids, is part of Monsanto’s efforts to double canola yields to 60 bushels an acre by 2030, while using one-third the amount of inputs, such as fertilizer. The company is investing $20 to $30 million a year in canola research.
“Currently, if we look at the trend we’re on within our breeding program, that target is definitely within sight,” said Michael Martin, the company’s St. Louis-based head of global special crop breeding. “We’re committed to this crop.”
Canola is now Canada’s biggest crop by dollar value and generates $1 billion in cash receipts annually in Manitoba, said Barry Todd, deputy minister of Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives. Overall, it contributes $14 billion to Canada’s economy and accounts for more than 200,000 jobs, added Denise Maurice, the Canola Council of Canada’s vice-president of crop production.
The U of M’s Baldur Stefansson and Agriculture Canada’s Keith Downey took rapeseed, which produced an industrial oil unsuitable for human consumption, and altered it to produce the world’s healthiest food oil with the lowest level of saturated fat at just seven per cent. Canola meal was also modified so it could be fed to livestock as a protein supplement. It was developed through traditional plant breeding methods and was not genetically modified, as gene-splicing technology didn’t exist then. This year, 99 per cent of the canola grown in Manitoba was herbicide tolerant (the majority of which was genetically modified) and 92 per cent was hybrid.
Todd recalled that when he was a graduate student at the U of M, Stefansson was ribbed by wheat breeders about working on a crop with so few acres of production.
Between 1970 and 1974, Canadian farmers planted an average of just 3.8 million acres of rapeseed annually, compared to 19.8 million acres for wheat. In the last five years, canola acreage averaged 15.5 million, compared to wheat’s 23 million acres. (In 2010, there were 16.7 million acres seeded to canola versus 20.1 million acres for wheat.)
Monsanto’s new facility will employ up to 60 people (depending on the season) and is a major change from the company’s former location in a strip mall. It has “cutting edge” technology in its 2,200 square feet of laboratory and eight growth rooms, which total 6,000 square feet. Growth rooms are used instead of greenhouses, partly because of the facility’s northern location.
Using near-infrared spectroscopy machines costing $75,000 each, Monsanto technicians can test new seeds to see if they meet canola standards in one minute without destroying the seed. Using tissue culture, Monsanto breeders can knock three to four years off the time it takes to bring a new hybrid to market.
While thousands of potential new hybrids are developed annually, only three or four reach the market and are usually replaced by better hybrids in three or four years.
The facility has LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver certification – an eco-friendly seal of approval that recognizes sustainable, energy-efficient building construction. It features several natural skylights, sensored lighting, geothermal heating and cooling. The surrounding grounds will be planted to native Prairie grasses.