The father of canola: a plant breeder who transformed rapeseed into an edible oilseed crop success story
Educated at the Universities of Saskatchewan and Cornell, Downey came to the Agriculture Canada Research Station in Lethbridge in 1951. He moved to Agriculture Canada's research station in Saskatoon in 1957, and a year later he was appointed principal research scientist in charge of oilseed crop breeding there.
Downey's 40-year career with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) saw the development of rapeseed from a crop grown on a paltry 2,600 hectares to an agricultural economic dynamo cultivated, by the 1990s, on 4.25 million hectares in Canada. The rapeseed of the 1940s was grown to produce an industrial lubricant, it was largely inedible due to high levels of erucic acid in the oil and of glucosinolates in the meal. Canola, by contrast, is an edible, high value, high protein crop used world wide in the form of cooking oil and livestock feed. Now the largest source of edible oil in the world, and the third largest crop in Canada after wheat and barley, canola (named for "Canada" and "oil") is one of Agriculture Canada's many success stories.
It was Downey's research team at AAFC which developed a new method of partitioning a seed so that half of it could be tested for nutritional composition and the other half would still germinate. This allowed them to analyze the half-seed using Gas-Liquid Chromotograpy (GLC) and then select from the remaining partitioned seed only those showing desirable traits for the next generation. The half-seed method and GLC technology allowed Downey to develop 18 varieties of canola and 5 varieties of condiment mustard.
Downey headed the rapeseed and mustard improvement project at AAFC's Saskatoon Research Centre from 1958 until his retirement in 1993. He continued at the Centre as Research Scientist Emeritus, and at the University of Saskatchewan as an Adjunct Professor.
Between 1996 and 1998, Downey was a leader in an innovative project designed to involve thousands of Canadian schoolchildren in a grand experiment on the effects of space travel. Downey acted as scientific advisor to the Canolab program, a joint effort of the Canadian Space Agency, AAFC and other agricultural research partners.
The project's goal was to introduce the scientific method to elementary school students and to help them learn about the space environment and plant biology. Canola seeds which had flown aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1996 were provided to over 2000 classrooms, along with a control seed sample. Classes generated their own hypotheses regarding how the "space seed" would grow and germinate, then grew both samples of seed and compared results. Downey was involved in the project design; as well, he spoke with children in their schools and compiled and interpreted the data arising out of the two year program.
The story of canola is not finished, nor is Downey's involvement with the crop. Canola is one of the crops genetically engineered to be tolerant to applications of Roundup (glyphosate), an agricultural herbicide. There are now more transgenic varieties of canola (that is, more varieties containing genes from other plants, microbes and animals) than of any other agricultural crop. Downey was invited by both sides to serve as expert witness in the recent court case involving a Saskatchewan farmer and Monsanto, one of the world's largest producers of genetically modified seed. Downey's testimony on the likelihood of Monsanto pollen outcrossing to the farmer's field was instrumental in the court finding in favour of Monsanto.
Downey's contribution to the advancement of the canola industry has resulted in national and international awards. In 1998, "Downey Street" at a high profile research and development park in Saskatoon was named in his honour.
Results from the Canolab project: When Dr. Downey compiled the first year's data from the experiments on the canola "space seeds", he found a statistically significant result which researchers are still working to understand. He found that in comparison to "normal" seeds:
The results reflect those found by other, similar projects using tomato, wheat, oats, barley and seeds.
For more information on the Canolab project, see the Canada Space Agency website.