Adapting to changing climate and markets
Bright yellow fields of canola flowers are a common sight in Australia’s temperate grain-growing regions. Canola is a generic term used to describe oilseed varieties bred from either rape or mustard plants with low levels of the undesirable compounds erucic acid and glucosinolates in extracted oil and residual meal, respectively. Canola oil is now widely used as a healthy option for cooking and dressings, biofuel production, and animal feed meal.
Initially developed in Canada in the early 1970s, canola has been adopted as a profitable break crop in cereal production systems in Australia, with production tripling over the past two decades. Canola is Australia’s third most valuable grain crop (behind wheat and barley), and Australia is the second-ranked exporter of canola oilseed worldwide. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) estimates a national record harvest of 7.3 million tonnes of canola for the 2022-23 season, which could result in a net national value greater than $5 billion.
Although canola is already a success story in Australia, its future production systems will need to adapt to the changing climate experienced in many grain-growing regions, where the frequency of hotter, drier weather is expected to increase. Currently, most canola oilseed is exported for international food and biofuel usage. However, future market diversification, product differentiation and some onshore value-adding will be needed to provide resilience to its overall value for Australian farmers.
A range of scientific fields target canola improvements
To help Australia meet these challenges, CSIRO and several industry and research partners have established a comprehensive research program for Australia’s canola industry. This approach has brought together teams in plant breeding, synthetic biology, agronomy, physiology, pathology, farming systems, and food and feed innovation.
Importantly, Australia’s canola growers are open to new technology, germplasm and management practices. For example, new breeding approaches such as hybrid and herbicide-tolerant varieties and genetically modified canola crops are already widely grown in Australia. Thus, our multi-disciplinary research program aims to transform canola into an even more resilient and valuable crop that continues to be productive and sustainable and matches new market directions domestically and overseas.
Securing market value and profitability
In a notable outcome, we developed a life cycle assessment was with key industry collaborators across the production and value chain and used to demonstrate that the Australian canola industry meets the EU’s strict greenhouse gas emissions targets. This analysis has allowed the Australian industry to maintain access to the lucrative EU biofuel market and its price premiums.
To create new market opportunities and product differentiation, we developed novel canola plants that accumulate omega-3 oils in partnership with the GRDC and NuSeed. Long-chain omega-3 oils, such as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are critical for many aspects of human health.
As demand for omega-3 oils continues to grow faster than can be sustainably supplied from wild fish stocks, it is essential to find new sources to satisfy growing consumer demands. Using gene technology, our scientists transferred the ability to produce DHA from microalgae into canola at commercially viable levels for the terrestrial production of omega-3 oils. This novel trait and canola plants and the resulting omega-3 enriched oil have received approval for release from regulatory bodies in the USA and Australia. The commercialisation of DHA-producing canola by NuSeed was initiated in 2022 in the USA for both the aquaculture feed and the human health markets.
Further diversification and value-adding of canola are being explored by using the residual meal after oil extraction to supply protein. We are collaborating with Graincorp and Australian plant-based protein food company v2food to use canola as a local source of plant proteins to ensure a secure supply for this growing industry into the future. A wide range of potential market options for Australian canola is critical to its future continued success.
Future Crop Resilience
To improve outcomes for growers, an integrated approach must be adopted that identifies the best combinations of genetic, agronomic and farming system interventions. For example, GRDC-funded CSIRO research developed guidelines for adopting a dual-purpose ‘graze and grain’ canola system. This system provides forage for livestock during autumn and winter; the livestock is then removed and the crop harvested for grain. The adoption of dual-purpose canola has substantially lifted farm profitability and enterprise resilience in some of Australia’s grain production regions. The estimated value of dual-purpose canola is around $1 billion in the 15 years since it was first commercially adopted in 2007, and its area and value continue growing.
Increasing farm size and more unreliable autumn rainfall under climate change means canola sowing dates are moving earlier to ensure farm sowing programs can be completed. We led a national program that demonstrated the higher yield potential of earlier sowing systems. However, success with earlier sowing systems requires specific adaptations that can ensure successful establishment in drier and warmer soils and provide crop development patterns (phenology) that maintain an optimal flowering date under changing climate. Genetic solutions to both of these adaptations are underway.
For improved phenological adaptation, our researchers have identified the optimal flowering window across the canola-growing regions of Australia where yield potential is maximised while climatic risks such as frost, heat and drought are minimised. Using our increasing understanding of the genetic control of flower initiation, we have modelled the optimal time to sow for any variety in any given part of Australia to achieve flowering during the optimal flowering window, maximising the chance of a profitable canola crop. New agronomic packages for novel early sowing systems are being developed in partnership with the GRDC to ensure the potential of the new genetics is realised in the field.
A significant constraint on canola yields in Australia is blackleg disease caused by the fungal pathogen Leptosphaeria maculans. Plant breeders have improved the resistance of canola varieties, but the pathogen evolves rapidly, and it is a continuous race for breeders and agronomists to stay ahead of devastating infections. We are working in a GRDC-funded consortium of pathologists aiming to reduce blackleg impact by identifying appropriate crop rotations and sowing times, predicting the presence and impact of disease, maintaining fungicide durability and ongoing surveillance of pathogen populations. We are applying new machine learning methods to improve the speed and accuracy with which blackleg disease incidence and severity can be monitored to support breeders in developing more resistant cultivars. These tools and management information will allow growers to continue to reduce their vulnerability to blackleg infection.
Together, these combined findings and future developments will help to secure canola’s success as a critical crop in Australia.