“So what is that yellow stuff growing in the fields, Eddie?” It is a common question at the beginning of the season when much of the countryside is covered in it. In what, exactly?
The common name for the crop is Oil Seed Rape which, as I say, may not be a very nice name but is the traditional English one. You may know it, I continue, by the name Canola. (There are usually a few nods of recognition at this.) Then I explain that this is a Canadian name standing for ‘Canadian oil, low acid’ which keeps the Canucks happy. They are a pretty easy-going race most of the time – but it is nice to reference them occasionally.
Canola is actually a variety of rape seed oil with a low level of eruric acid, which can be harmful if consumed in large quantities. I regularly use rape seed oil when cooking and often see fields of it in the countryside, particularly in the early summer, when it is at its brightest. Later the yellow fades and sometimes a strong sick-like odour comes from the fields, indicating the crop needs to be cut. These same fields are often then used to produce maize, harvested around this time of year. However, while walking on the South Downs this week I saw a couple of these distinctive yellow fields which will be harvested this autumn.
Worldwide production of rape has grown sixfold in the last forty years to nearly seventy million tons a year, China and Canada being the main producers. The UK grows two million tons of it annually, which is used for cooking, in salads and the production of products like ice cream. The oil can also be used for biodiesel and some of the coaches I have worked in have been powered by it. I well remember being stuck on the Glenshee mountain pass in the Scottish Highlands where our coach had broken down, the driver blaming “this biodiesel stuff” for our problems. I eventually found a school bus to take us on St Andrews and Edinburgh, which made us realise how lucky we were to have a proper touring coach. For many people, however, being stuck on a Scottish mountain was the highlight of their trip.
Basically rape seed oil/canola is a poor person’s olive oil and in a notorious case back in the early 1980s in Spain some of it was blamed for a mass outbreak of illness and around 1,000 deaths. The Spanish government, to protect the native olive oil industry, had banned canola, which was treated to make it inedible. However, some of it was illegally sold in street markets as olive oil resulting in a large number of people fallen ill. This, however, may not be the whole story as some say the illnesses resulted form organophosphate poisoning. (Go to https://www.theguardian.com/education/2001/aug/25/research.highereducation for more).
Guides need to know a little bit about farming and have to keep their information up to date. Further changes can be expected as a result of the long saga of Brexit next year.