Dear Umbra,

I recently saw “organic canola oil” on a salad dressing bottle. I looked up the origin of canola oil, and it looks like it is a genetic modification of rapeseed. I thought organic certification disallowed genetically modified foods. What’s the scoop?

Tom Grundy
Nevada City, Calif.

Dearest Tom,

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Have you noticed yet that May is food month here on floor 2B? Food and plants, in honor of spring — and to counter last month’s depressing climate-change bonanza. (Although it’s been yet another weird, hot spring in purportedly rainy Seattle, and all the gardeners are irrigating already — maybe gardening is not such a cheery subject after all.)

Thanks, Canada!

Photo: iStockphoto.

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Rapeseed — which, along with broccoli, belongs to the famous mustard family — has long been a popular source of oil for lubricating engines, lighting lamps, and other useful things. However, it contained too much erucic acid and glucosinolates to be marketable as a food oil. Erucic acid was a suspected carcinogen, in fact, and glucosinolates tasted bad. In the 1970s, enterprising and brilliant Canadian plant breeders developed a rapeseed hybrid with the holy rapeseed grail: less erucic acid and glucosinolates. They did this through conventional plant breeding — before genetic engineering came on the scene.

A plant-breeding lab is not quite a glade abuzz with bees. Finding and propagating unique varieties can involve intense manipulation, mutations, and years of work forcing plants to cross-breed and waiting for the right gene combination to emerge. That is what these fellows successfully did. And did they name the hybrid after themselves? No! They named it after Canada, in a typically understated Canuck way: “Canola” stands for Canadian Oil Low Acid. (Today it’s an Oil MVP, so I bet they wish they had named it Canada oil. Then we would all have to pay homage to Canada much more often.)

Canola oil is such an important food crop at this point — second only to soybean oil in worldwide oilseed production — that efforts to perfect and improve it for certain applications have continued. And, of course, genetic engineering techniques have been used. Today the bulk of rapeseed grown in Canada is genetically engineered, and the U.S. and Australia grow modified versions of the crop as well. We should go over genetic engineering techniques at some point soon, because if you think canola as an acronym is an astounding revelation, this GE stuff will blow your mind.

To sell their products as organic in the U.S., farmers, as you say, are not allowed to buy genetically engineered seeds. They must buy only organically certified seed, unless it’s unavailable (another reason for the expense of organic produce — seed is quite costly). The National Organic Program rules explicitly forbid genetically engineered material. Hooray for the activists who fought to exclude genetically engineered organisms from the USDA’s Organic Rule — if nothing else, it shows that the government can listen and respond to public feedback.