14 July 1995

Congress told rapeseed is set for success, but…

By Charles Abel

RAPESEED is set for success. But better promotion and a quick solution to concerns over genetic engineering are needed if opportunities are to be seized.

Higher yields, better quality and new market opportunities are all in the pipeline, delegates at the ninth International Rapeseed Congress in Cambridge heard.

"But developments will never come to fruition unless profitable markets can be found," explained Dr John Batterbee, chairman of Unilever raw materials in the Netherlands.

World oilseed markets have changed, he stressed. Soya no longer dictates prices. That is a result of more widespread oilseeds production, growing demand from the Pacific rim, the GATT rounds impact on the oil trade and yield improvements in other crops.

"We can expect greater volatility and higher prices for all oils and fats, bringing greater profitability to the supply chain," he explained.

But the crop faces threats. Palm oil will offer ever stronger competition. Leading producer Malaysia has already accepted price discounts, and is investing heavily in aggressive marketing and research.

Offices of its palm oil organisation provide advice on nutrition and processing all around the world. And researchers hope to double yields through easy harvesting dwarf varieties, better advice and genetic engineering.

Canada leads rapeseeds response, with 30m Canadian dollars invested in research and promotion of Canola, Mr Batterbee said. "But there is little evidence of a unified strategy in Europe. It would be nice if that could be addressed."

Other threat

The other threat is the acceptability of genetic engineering. "A lot of oilseed rapes bright future includes genetic enhancement, and that raises problems of consumer and political acceptability. A large education effort is needed."

Unless public fears are allayed and reasonable rules developed soon trade could suffer, he suggested. The UK government is "particularly enlightened", but other EU countries, particularly Germany, are "not so good", he said.

Dr Lisa Zannoni of the OECD sought to allay such fears. A survey of regulations in 19 key countries involved in biotechnology shows "greater commonality" than expected.

OECD is now working on common regulations, so biotech rules are not used as a barrier to free trade, she added.

But leading Canadian breeder Dr Keith Downey is sceptical. He reckons Canada, the US and Japan are well advanced with their regulations. But the EU needs to "shape up".

Genetically modified rapeseed will enter world trade late next year, he explained. Unless rules are agreed trade will suffer. "The trouble is that the no problem data we have, which shows genetically modified crops are acceptable, doesnt make the news."

He also stressed that refined rape oil contains no proteins, so carries no modified genetic material. "Humans would not be exposed to recombinant DNA, so there is no risk anyway."