In a long article in yesterday’s Guardian, the investigative food journalist Joanna Blythman, a regular contributor to Slow Food publications, questioned the wisdom of the intensive cultivation of oilseed rape in Britain’s fields.
She describes a train journey from London to her native Edinburgh in which Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, Northumbria and the Scottish borders in particular are characterized by a ‘proliferation of Day-Glo yellow plantations’.
Oilseed rape, virtually unknown in Britain in the 1970s, is now the nation’s third arable crop, and according to Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) figures, cultivation has increased by 17% in the last year alone.
Oilseed is popular with farmers because the demand for it is high. Traditionally used to make cooking oil, margarine, cattle feed, candles, soaps, plastics, polymers and lubricants, it has now become successful as a biofuel, and recently even ‘extra virgin rapeseed oil’ has hit the market.
On its website, the Cambridgeshire producer Munns claims: ‘The future is golden. The popularity of cold-pressed rapeseed oil is set to soar as more people come to recognise the health benefits and quality when compared with olive oil. We believe that it will quickly become a favourite with discerning chefs, as it establishes itself as the really healthy local option.’
For her part, Joanna Blythman believes that, ‘… anyone accustomed to extra virgin olive or nut oils may be distinctly underwhelmed. In my opinion, it has a dry, tinny, bitter aftertaste’.
She also suggests that the crop may generate negative ecological consequences. ‘Greedy for nutrients and notoriously dependent on nitrogen-rich fertilisers,’ she writes, ‘oilseed rape is among the worst arable crops for leaching nitrates into waterways and polluting aquifers. It is one of the crops that led to the setting up of nitrate sensitive areas and nitrate vulnerable zones across the EU.’
She goes on to express concern at some of the chemicals used in the growing of oilseed rape and suggests that the crop may have adverse effects on health in the form of respiratory difficulties and eye complaints.
‘The more yellow our landscape becomes, the more our nagging concerns about this newcomer crop may grow to match its spread,’ concludes Blythman.