The Science of Sustainability

Canola, Flax, and Sunflower: The Hidden Power of Oilseeds

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H. Butterfly on a sunflower - Hannah Whitehead

A butterfly rests on a sunflower, one of a few plants with great biofuel promise. Credit: Hannah Whitehead

Oilseed crops could help Midwestern farmers reduce costs for fuel, fertilizer and animal feed — at least, that’s the idea that researchers at The Ohio State University are exploring.

Grown for their seeds, which are rich in vegetable oil, common species of oilseeds differ in look and cultural origin, from dark leafy plants like canola (closely related to turnips), to short spindly ones like flax (also grown for the linen fibers along its stalk), to long-forgotten crops like camelina (once considered a weed), to familiar ornamentals like sunflowers.

E. Blue flax flowers in the foreground, yellow canola flowers peeking through, and the 200-year old barn in the background. Credit: Liz Kolbe

Blue flax flowers in the foreground, yellow canola flowers peeking through, and the 200-year old barn in the background. Credit: Liz Kolbe

The oil is released when the seeds are passed through a mechanical press. The farmer is left with two end-products: raw oil, which can be processed into edible oil or biofuel or products like linoleum, and the pulverized seed remains (the “meal”), which are full of protein and are usually fed to livestock.

Oilseed crops, especially canola, flax, camelina, and sunflower, are drawing commercial and academic attention because of several converging trends. The first is interest in renewable fuel, especially biofuel derived from vegetable oil. Several organizations, including Organic Valley, are even helping farmers produce their own tractor fuel by growing oilseeds.

Then there is the hype around omega-3 fatty acids, which modern Western diets often lack, and which are essential for immune response and brain health. Flax and camelina oils both contain enough omega-3 fatty acids that rival highly touted fish oils.

And finally, oilseeds fit the bill when it comes to the mounting interest in reducing reliance on resources like water and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Three different oilseeds: canola are the round black ones, flax are the large tear-drop shaped ones and camelina are the tiny orange ones. Credit: Hannah Whitehead

Three different oilseeds: canola are the round black ones, flax are the large tear-drop shaped ones and camelina are the tiny orange ones. Credit: Hannah Whitehead

Camelina, for example, grows in poor soils, which makes it appealing in regions expecting drought or other severe conditions fostered by climate change. Bee-friendly canola and sunflower blossoms can help support threatened farm pollinator populations. Canola and sunflower roots break up compacted soils. And perhaps most importantly, the practice of alternating diverse species like oilseeds with other crops to create more complex yearly rotations improves soil health and reduces weed and pest build-up.

And it turns out that many of oilseeds’ attributes have as much potential to reduce external costs (such as, livestock feed, fuel or nutrient/pest control) as they have to generate new profits.

These benefits are at the core of OSU’s interest in oilseeds. Ohio and other states with similar growing conditions are unlikely to become centers of oilseed production (these crops grow best in the arid northern prairies), but oilseeds could become a valuable resource for small to mid-scale Midwestern farmers who want to reduce off-farm inputs while diversifying their production. This past summer, researchers at OSU’s Agroecosystem Management Program, in cooperation with Organic Valley, planted demonstration plots of canola, flax, camelina, and sunflower to explore the suite of benefits that oilseeds could offer area farmers. It was the inaugural project at a new OSU research farm that is dedicated to studying small to mid-scale agriculture.

B. (honeybee caption) - Liz Kolbe

In June, you could literally hear the canola humming with honeybees from OSU's nearby bee lab. Credit: Liz Kolbe

In a twist of fate, the farmers who worked that very tract of land two centuries ago also grew flax. They spun the resulting fibers into linen fabrics, which they used to produce elaborate home furnishings. Imagine if they knew that flax was growing on their land again — not for bedspreads, not for tablecloths, but for oil and animal feed and fuel and just about everything else.

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Category: Energy, Food, Sustainable Food, Sustainable Health

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About the Author ()

Hannah Whitehead is a research assistant for the Agroecosystem Management Program at the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. She studied social and environmental history at the University of Chicago, where she conducted research on urban agriculture. Since then, she’s worked on a number of innovative and inspiring farms in far more remote locales – from the Alps in western France to the southern tip of the continental divide in New Mexico. Along the way she spent time working for a ghost-writing company, helping to craft family histories and executive memoirs. A Cleveland native, she is now happily discovering the agrarian side of her own home state in Wooster, Ohio.
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  • Matt

    That is quite informative. It's good that farmers are growing alternative crops. Any idea about the etymology of canola? It's a contraction of Can (from Canada, where much of it is grown) and -ola (from oleum, Latin for oil). It's a variety of rapeseed. But rapeseed wouldn't be as marketable as canola.

    • Hannah

      Hi Matt,
      You're right, rapeseed and canola are different, but closely related. Rapeseed (from the latin 'rapa', meaning 'turnip') contains high levels of erucic acid and glucosinolates that make it un-palatable to humans. Historically, rapeseed oil was used as a lubricant. In the 1970s, researchers in Canada bred an edible low-acid variety that they called "Can-o-l-a" – an abbreviation of “Canadian Oilseed, Low-Acid”. Thanks for your interest!

  • Alvin Smith

    This is new in Science and should introduce to the world :)