Contending with oily situations 

Go 'canola' or go home!

click to enlarge WWW.SHUTTERSTOCK.COM - palm-oil problems Global palm-oil production has quadrupled from 1995 to 2015.
  • palm-oil problems Global palm-oil production has quadrupled from 1995 to 2015.

Oil is one hot item these days. Only this time I'm talking about canola and palm oil, not the black stuff we're still pumping out of the ground like there's no tomorrow.

Nobody likes an oily deal, and right now Canada is in a justifiable flap over one: China is banning the import of Canadian canola, ostensibly because it contains, quote, "dangerous pests" or "harmful organisms." Of course, no one on the Canadian side has found evidence of these supposed pests, but many do see the whole thing as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei's Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

In 2010, a similar food fight happened in Norway when the Nobel Peace Prize went to Liu Xiaobo, a political prisoner in China. In response, China nuked its bilateral trade deal with Norway, and restricted imports of Norwegian salmon.

The canola thing is equally fishy. It's also serious—$4-billion-worth-of-annual-sales serious.

Thousands of farmers in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba rely heavily on canola. China buys about 40 per cent of all Canadian canola exports, and not just oil. China also likes, or at least they used to, our canola meal and seed, some of which is used as feed for livestock and aquaculture. As for the oil, it has a light, pleasant taste especially useful when you don't want olive oil flavouring your culinary creations, including Chinese food.

Anyone growing up on the prairies as I did (see other prairie-girl true confessions in my column last week), knows we prairie folk trumpet using canola oil to support our local farmers. Rapeseed it was once called, a name that made us giggle knowingly as kids in the back seat of the car as we drove past the gorgeous yellow fields in bloom.

The idea of supporting local farmers sticks with me still. So, I say, arm yourselves with oil, my fellow Canucks, and go "canola" or go home!

Sure, bottles of canola oil are easy to source. As for the rest of your oil-based food supply, namely processed foods from bread to biscuits, just read the label. You might be pleasantly surprised. For instance, Walkers of Scotland's yummy three-seed oat crackers are still made with canola oil. Plop, went the packages into our grocery cart.

I say "still" because it's a rare moment in paradise you find any processed foods not made with palm oil these days. Which brings us to another oily mess.

Palm oil is a sneaky bugger. To start, production has quadrupled from 1995 to 2015. By 2050, it is expected to quadruple again, states an excellent report, "How the World Got Hooked on Palm Oil," in The Guardian. It has become so ubiquitous you can barely buy a tube of lipstick or a bottle of shampoo without getting stuck in palm oil. Palmolive, anyone?

Yes, palm oil has lifted famers out of poverty, but it has also produced far more devastation than good. The EU is so concerned about palm oil's terrible impact, both on the environment and people, it plans to block palm oil imports from Malaysia. In a strange twist in trade wars, Malaysia has now threatened to source jets from China instead of the EU.

Trade war sagas will continue to zig and zag until we're all entrenched in anarchy from global warming, but there's no mistaking the damage from palm-oil production in the meantime.

Books and reports, and more books and reports, have been written on palm oil's dirty little secrets. My eyes were opened in 2013 when Whistlerite Mieke Prummel suggested I look into the best cooking oil to use. That lead to my columns "Just say no—really loudly—to palm oil" and "No more palming off" along with frequent reminders to simply read labels and put those cookies made with palm oil back on the shelf. (That goes to show I love your story ideas, dear readers, so please keep 'em coming to my email address at the end of this column.)

To avoid palm oil, I have some suggestions. Again, just read your labels. Admittedly, you almost need to be a chemist sometimes, because palm oil can masquerade as palm stearine or sodium lauryl lactylate, or any number of other forms and names. Often, you're just plain tricked since some manufacturers simply call it "vegetable oil."

Thankfully, you can find a downloadable wallet card with all of palm oil's pseudonyms at Orangutan Foundation International, a terrific organization founded by Simon Fraser University's professor Birute Galdikas to help our rapidly diminishing orangutan populations, which are hugely threatened by palm oil production. You can also sign Sum of Us's petition urging Pepsi, one of the world's largest food and beverage corporations, to drop its partner, Indofoods, which has been kicked out of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Then I have my 40/40 proposition: Since some estimates put palm oil at about 40 per cent of all vegetable oils produced and we Canucks have just given up 40 per cent of our canola exports to China, make canola your oil of choice at least 40 per cent of the time.

A lot of people don't trust canola oil because of all the sprays used on it, especially glyphosate or Roundup, but you can easily get around that by buying organic. Unlike palm oil, which I've never seen as certified organic, (some sustainable certification, yes, but nothing organic) beautiful, organic Canadian canola oil can easily be found and nary an orangutan will die producing it.

At Whistler, you can buy organic canola oil at your friendly neighbourhood Nesters Market, the IGA at Marketplace and Olive's Community Market in Function Junction. In the big-box leagues, Loblaws sells a good organic canola oil under its own President's Choice brand at its outlets such as Superstore.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who always finds oily things a dilemma. You can reach her at

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