Dr. Baldur R. Stefansson, whose birthplace was Vestfold near Lundar, Manitoba, has been referred to as the father of canola. He received a B.S.A. degree in 1950, M.Sc. in 1952, and a Ph.D. in 1966 from the University of Manitoba.
As he began his career as an ollseed breeder in the Department of Plant Science, he recognized the potential of ollseed rape as an edible oilseed crop for temperate climates. At that time, oilseed rape was a crop used primarily as an industrial oil, with limited application in the western world and limited acreage. In the 1960's, the crop's future as an edible oil crop was threatened when research conducted identified the high content of the long chain erucic acid in the oil as a concern. Diets containing high amounts of erucic acid were associated with deposition of fat in the heart, skeletal muscle, and adrenal glands of rodents.
Dr. Stefansson had the wisdom and foresight to realize that, in order to make the modifications required for oilseed rape to be widely accepted, he would require the collaboration of others, including chemists, nutritionists, agronomists and other plant breeders. Stefansson undertook a survey of rape accessions from many parts of the world, looking for variability in the content of erucic acid in the oil fraction. After surveying over 4000 lines by gas chromatograph, he discovered a forage rape, Liho, that had wide variability in its erucic acid content. Through breeding and selection using Liho as a parent, he and his colleague, Dr. Keith Downey in 1961, demonstrated that erucic acid could be essentially eliminated from rape oil.
In the late 1960's and early 1970's, Dr. Stefansson embarked on a program to reduce the glucosinate content of the meal while selecting for increased oil content and increased meal protein content, a first for oilseed breeders. As a result of this, his early varieties (Tanka, Target and Turret) were widely accepted because they were high yielding with an above average oil and protein content. In 1974, Dr. Stefansson released Tower, the first 'double zero' rape cultivar with less than 5 percent erucic acid and less than 3 mg/g glucosinolates in the meal. The significant improvements in both oil and meal quality were recognized in a new commodity name 'canola'.
In 1987, Dr. Stefansson registered the world's first low linolenic canola cultivar Stellar. The low linolenic oil produced by Stellar has greater stability and improved processing characteristics of canola. Dr. Stefansson also developed oilseed rape cultivars with very high levels of erucic acid in the oil, providing a valuable oil with many industrial applications.
Dr. Stefansson's contribution to the bright future of the canola crop in Canada was recognized by the Royal Bank Award in 1975. He was made a Fellow of the Agricultural Institute of Canada in 1975 and was awarded the Queen's Jublilee Medal in 1977. Other prestigious recognition of his contribution to Canadian agriculture include the Grindley Medal, the H.R. MacMillan Laureate in Agriculture, and the McAnsh Award from the Canola Council of Canada. Dr. Stefansson was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1985. He was recognized by the international rapeseed scientific community in 1987 with the International Award for Research in Rapeseed from the International Rapeseed Congress. Two student awards, one scholarship and one bursary, have been established in Dr. Stefansson's name, based on the awards from the Canola Council of Canada and the lcelandic Foundation of Manitoba. On his retirement from the University in 1986, Dr. Stefansson was given an appointment as a senior scholar, followed in 1987 by an appointment as Professor Emeritus.
Dr. Stefansson's vision of what might be and his innovative thoughtful approach to reaching his goals provide much-quoted examples of what plant breeding can achieve. During his career at the University, Dr. Stefansson supervised graduate students who are now working in key positions for plant breeding companies world-wide. The quality standards set by canola have become international standards for the crop internationally. Canola oil quality has been recognized as nutritionally desirable with low levels of saturated fatty acids. The new methods available to plant breeders now include genetic transformation and canola is among the first of the transgenic crops in commercial production. There has been a remarkable series of changes in the crop first known as oilseed rape and much of the interest in the crop today can be traced to the pioneering work of Baldur Stefansson.