knife and fork with canola blossom

Tastes change

Pork supply in Japan was 2.17 kg per person per year in 1961. (I know pork isn’t canola, but stay with me.) Pork supply in Japan rose steadily over the next 50 years to 20.51 in 2011. The rapid adoption of pork into the diet was even more dramatic in China, going from 2.36 to 35.82 kg per person per year in the same period.

These numbers come from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) online database of food production and supply stats. Go to fao.org and look for FAOSTAT. I had fun poking around for food trends in Canada’s four major canola markets: U.S., China, Japan and Mexico.

Take milk. The U.S. drinks a lot of milk – with supply per person holding steady at around 250 kg per year from 1961 to 2011. The Chinese, by comparison, are not big milk drinkers, but after bumping along at two to three kg per person per year from 1961 to 1981, the number rose to 10.8 kg by 2001 and frothed to 31.52 by 2011. It was another dramatic change in tastes for the ancient nation.

Vegetable oil consumption is interesting, too. In China in 1961, which is as far back as FAO stats go, total veg oil supply per person was just over one kg per year. The top three oils used in China at that time were soybean, peanut and rapeseed, in that order. (FAO uses “rapeseed”.) By 2011, the top three were soybean, palm and rapeseed. Rapeseed oil supply, which would include Canadian canola oil, was 1.65 kg per person per year and soy oil was 2.25. In 2013, the most recent data at the FAO site, rapeseed was at 1.49 and soy at 2.03.

In Japan in 1961, rapeseed oil shared top spot with soy. These were still the top two oils in Japan 50 years later, but rapeseed oil (including Canadian canola oil) was number one by a wide margin.

The situation is quite different in Mexico, whose veg oil market experienced complete upheaval over the past 50 years. In 1961, its two big vegetable oils were sesame and cottonseed. Fifty years later, those two are insignificant, with soy, palm and rapeseed, in that order, supplying basically the whole market. Cottonseed fell off the food oil truck in the U.S., too. (Even though global cotton and cottonseed production increased in the U.S. and the world over that time.)

Taste has a lot to do with what people like to eat. So do food functionality and health benefits. Other big factors are price and supply. Supply challenges can come from the environment in production zones. Government regulations and policy approaches, such as trans fat rules, trade agreements and approval and acceptance of scientific advancements, such as genetic engineering, can also influence demand and therefore supply of a food. Each of these factors has influenced canola market development efforts over the years.

The lesson is that these “taste” drivers change over time. Where canola supply and demand go over the next 50 years will depend on so many factors, and a prediction, though easy enough to make, is likely to be wrong. Market access will continue to be an important effort for our Canadian canola industry. As will keeping up with demand forces and government food and trade policy in key markets. Specialty canola oils with 4.5 per cent saturated fat (it’s currently around 7 per cent) and with fish-oil properties could present exciting opportunities.

On the farm, keys to success are attention to market signals and quality standards, and flexibility to adapt rotations to meet changing tastes. This is how Canadian farmers met increasing market demand for canola over the years, and I expect farmers will continue to roll with whatever comes.

They have to.