A new breed
The canola breakthrough 10 years in the making
February 28, 2018
90,000. That’s approximately how many genes are in the canola plant genome. Rich Fletcher knew somewhere within that genome were specific genes that—when discovered and combined correctly—could create healthier canola oil, and Cargill was depending on him to figure it out.
Already relatively low in saturated fat compared to other oils such as palm or coconut, Cargill saw the potential for canola oil to have even less saturated fat. It was 2006, and the company had already successfully developed canola oil with zero trans fat and less saturated fat than other cooking oils on the market. Fletcher had just begun his Ph.D. program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, and started a new role in Cargill’s North American canola genetics program.
He was given the directive to use traditional breeding techniques to create a variety of canola seeds that would deliver oil containing 4.5 percent saturated fat, a significant reduction from the 7 percent saturated fat content that is standard in most canola oil. It had never been done before.
“This would be a new-to-the-world oil, which means that no one had ever developed anything with saturate levels this low before,” he recalled.
To achieve it would mean finding the genes involved in saturated fatty acid synthesis, some of which were known; some were not. It would mean sequencing those genes and breeding multiple variations across different geographies to understand what combination worked best to deliver not only reduced saturated fat content, but great-tasting, high-performing oil. The seeds had to perform, too; they had to be hearty enough to withstand disease and provide good yields for farmers. It would be a 10-year journey that has finally come to fruition.
Playing the long game
Years before Fletcher and his team got to work breeding seeds, researchers and marketers at Cargill were looking toward the future.
“It takes a long time to selectively breed for desired traits and then complete field trials, so we always have to be asking ourselves, what’s coming next?” said Lorin Debonte, research and development director for Cargill’s specialty oil business, which is part of Global Edible Oil Solutions.
Through proprietary consumer research and an analysis of the regulatory environment and nutritional trends, Cargill identified saturated fat as the next big thing to work on for specialty canola.
“Our research showed us that it may not have been a hot topic yet, but consumers cared about saturated fats,” said Willie Loh, vice president of business development for Cargill’s specialty oils business. “Consensus was that this was going to turn into something our customers would be looking to reduce in their products.”
So Cargill set out to develop a solution before the need became urgent. It was the same approach the company had taken with trans fat. Back in 1993, Cargill introduced Clear Valley® 65 high oleic canola oil. The high oleic part meant it was made from seeds that had been bred to produce oil with a high level of stability, meaning how long it lasts before breaking down or going bad. Achieving this through breeding eliminated the need to partially hydrogenate the canola oil, a process that was standard practice at the time because it added stability to the oil, but it also added trans fats.
In the early 90s, when Cargill introduced Clear Valley 65, no one was worried about trans fat. That changed in 2004, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, announced that food companies had to disclose the level of trans fat in their products due to concerns about its impact on heart health. Fortunately for food makers, Cargill was ready and waiting with its high oleic canola oil, and thus made switching to zero-trans-fat oil easy. A few years later, the FDA banned trans fats entirely, mandating their removal from all products by 2018. To-date, Cargill has helped reduce more than one billion pounds of trans fats from the diets of consumers.
“I don’t think that the changes with saturated fat will be quite as dramatic,” said Loh. “But anything we can do to improve the nutritional profile of our canola oil is something that we believe will be well received by our food customers, so long as quality, taste and performance aren’t compromised.”
Since it opened in 2014, the Cargill Food Innovation Center in Plymouth, Minnesota, has been a development hub for the new oil. Here, batches of low saturate canola oil have undergone rigorous testing to ensure they meet specifications for nutrition, taste, stability and fry life.
“Our customers use our oil in different ways,” said Debonte. “Some of them are using the canola oil in packaged products, where you are concerned about things like freshness and shelf-life. Others are using it in a commercial fryer, so they may want to extend the life of the oil in the fryer or make sure the taste is optimal. We’ve tested for all of it.”
The oil qualities that matter to food customers were never far from the breeding team’s minds as they worked to develop the seeds that would deliver low saturate oil. Yet equally important to consider was the needs of the farmers who would be growing the canola.
“We have two sets of customers that we have to please: food customers who will be using the oil, and farmers who will be growing the seeds,” said Kristin Monser-Gray, a trait discovery supervisor who is based in Fort Collins and works with Fletcher. “The farmer won’t buy the seeds unless they deliver good yields.”
Which is why, for the past five years, Cargill has been working with farmers in Canada to field test the new seeds as the company worked to perfect the genetic profile. As with all specialty canola varieties, the farmers have been paid a premium to grow the crop, which is processed into low saturate canola oil at Cargill’s facilities in Clavet, Saskatchewan, and West Fargo, North Dakota.
One such farmer is Ron Lamb. Part of a fourth-generation farm family in Saskatchewan, he’s grown Cargill specialty canola for years. When the company approached him about trialing the low saturate variety, he was game.
“I see it as a sustainable asset on our farm,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to help create a healthier oil, and I believe healthy is the future.” But make no mistake, the premium matters, too.
“There are a lot of seed companies out there, so you have to be competitive,” he said. “But I like working with Cargill. And this new variety is good; it’s producing strong plants. I like the agronomy of it.”
That wasn’t always the case. Initial trials produced less robust plants. Lamb says those early harvests were smaller and some of the varieties tended to lean over, or “lodge.” But he knew it was all part of the process. By gathering input from Lamb and other farmers involved in the trials, Cargill was able to improve the seed year by year.
One of the most important qualities to Lamb is disease resistance, and he’s pleased that Cargill is breeding the new hybrids to ward off diseases like club-root. Some farmers also feel strongly about herbicide tolerance, a trait that can be added to Cargill’s new variety through genetic modification.
“There are mixed feelings about genetic modification, so we make this trait an optional add-on, depending on the market,” said Fletcher. He says by starting with a non-GM base, Cargill ensures that its seeds can be used around the globe without issue. After all, canola isn’t just grown in North America; it’s also grown in Europe, Australia and Asia, and canola oil is consumed worldwide. And unlike genetically modified crops, products from traditional breeding do not require years of deregulation before
“A non-GM base that is created solely through traditional breeding methods provides us with the most flexibility long term,” said Fletcher.
Cargill hopes that farmers like Lamb continue to find value in dedicating acres to its specialty canola. The company will soon begin trials of the new variety in Australia, which represents a new set of challenges with different disease problems and frequent droughts.
“This is our livelihood,” Lamb said. “As long as you keep the premium, we’ll keep growing it. We try to do anything we can to be sustainable.”
An important milestone
By the end of 2017, Cargill felt confident that its seeds and oil were ready for commercialization. It’s maintained the brand names for each that have earned a strong reputation with farmers and food customers alike: Victory®canola seeds and Clear Valley® canola oil.
The company will begin phasing out production of its previous canola varieties in favor of the next generation of seeds. For everyone who has worked on this project over the past decade, it’s a milestone worth celebrating, but not the end of the marathon.
In fact, Cargill has already announced a partnership with Precision BioSciences to use its ARCUS® genome-editing technology to further reduce saturated fat in canola oil. It’s an exciting development because products made with the new oil– particularly fried foods – may be able to use front-of-package nutrient content claims on saturated fat levels, such as “Low in Saturated Fat,” depending on their overall nutritional profile.
Cargill has filed patent applications covering initial discoveries with this technology. Together with Precision BioSciences they will continue to further develop the new product, combining Cargill’s expertise in gene identification with Precision BioSciences’ unique technology that edits the targeted genes. Cargill will then determine a plan for commercialization.
“We haven’t crossed the finish line,” said Fletcher. “With 90,000 genes in the genome, there are so many possibilities.”