Rape, which was almost unknown in the UK before 1970, was the product of an intensive cross-breeding programme after World War II. Dependent upon large quantities of fertiliser and pesticides - to which many pests are now developing immunity - the crop is almost never found on organic farms. Despite its chemical-hungry nature, rape now accounts for some 11 per cent of all crops grown in the UK, and production has increased by 17 per cent in the last year. Next year's harvest is expected to top 2 million tonnes.
Oil from the rape seed, originally used as an alternative for whale or petroleum based oils in lamps, has also never had more buyers. As well as a burgeoning demand from nations anxious to meet their EU biofuels targets of 5.25 per cent of all transport fuels by 2012, the oil can be used for making plastics, food, margarine, animal fodder, candles, soaps and lubricants.
Rapeseed oil has also come into its own as a gastro alternative to olive oil. Some UK farmers are producing home pressed bottles for £6 per 500ml.
But this versatility comes at a cost. Even disregarding the enormous environmental impact of extensive fertiliser use, the cultivation of rape is starting to cause concern. Two of the pesticides used to control the many diseases and parasites which attack rape (glufosinate ammonium and vinclozolin) are suspected hormone disrupters, according to the UK coordinator for the Pesticides Action Network, Nick Mole. 'Neither of these chemicals are now commonly used as the farmer's first choice,' he told the Guardian.
Several complaints are made every year of lung and throat irritation in people living close to fields of rape, which could be caused by pollen, volatile organic compounds released by the plants, or cross-reactions with grass pollens.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2007