I’m looking at a Defra table showing the pesticide usage on oilseed rape crops grown in Britain between 1988 and 2014. It confirms my worst suspicions. Chemical spraying on this crop has more than doubled in that time. Our yellow fields of rape now typically soak up 11 spray rounds, a seasonally repeated arsenal of growth regulators, molluscicides, insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and dessicants.
I have never liked rapeseed oil. I find the taste harsh and bitter, and so do many other food writers, cooks, and chefs. Fellow experts on a recent tasting panel were perplexed by the apparent popularity of this increasingly ubiquitous golden oil, but they felt that to express such sentiment might be seen as churlish heresy, given its stellar rise and effective positioning as the right-on homegrown alternative to imported extra virgin olive oil.
“Ambitious health and sustainability claims are getting more puffed up”
Farmers who used to grow this pesticide-hungry crop as a commodity vegetable oil destined for anonymous use in margarine must not be able to believe their luck. All you have to do is invest in a simple mill for cold pressing and buy in some smart bottles, and you can then sell the same mundane crop for a premium. How cool a business plan is that?
The ambitious health and sustainability claims made for the crop get more puffed up by the moment, and there’s no sign of Trading Standards policing them. I can’t wait for the International Olive Oil Council to challenge rapeseed oil companies on their commandeering of the term ‘extra virgin’, if only to make the point that a time-honoured Mediterranean oil, grown from the fruit of ancient trees, is a different proposition entirely from some gold rush cash crop grown in an English field.
The rapid rise of boutique rapeseed oil demonstrates how a worthwhile idea - supporting local food - can become distorted. This rasping, non-aromatic oil that so quickly courts rancidity is an upstart that badly needs to be slapped down, yet embracing it is an easy way for chefs, delis, manufacturers, and supermarkets to show they are down with the locavore message. I’m optimistic, however, that we are close to ‘peak’ rapeseed oil. There’s only so much of the stuff one can stomach.
Joanna Blythman is a journalist and author of Swallow This