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Camelina Oil as a Source of Dietary Fat

Camelina sativa is also called “false flax” or “gold of pleasure”. This crop was formerly widely grown in Europe for its oil. But it fell out of camelina-oilfavor when soybean oil and canola oil began to rise in popularity. The camelina oilseed is similar to canola in its growth habit. It can be grown anywhere that canola is grown. The Pacific Northwest of the U.S. grows more camelina than any other U.S. region (mostly for biofuel). The crop grows well on marginal lands, not suitable for finicky crops like maize; camelina grows well even on land not previously used for agriculture. There are no pesticides or herbicides labeled for camelina in the U.S., so camelina is grown without either, and yet it withstands weeds and pests well on its own.

Fewer inputs mean less money spent growing the crop and a larger profit margin. For the developing world, this translates into less manual labor, so that more food can be grown by fewer persons. If a population grows their own food, and yet they are still undernourished, they need to be able to grow more food with the same or less manual labor. A U.S. farmer might be limited by financial constraints in how much food he can grow. But a subsistence farmer in the developing world is also limited by the amount of manual labor that a crop requires. If lower manual labor crops are substituted for higher manual labor crops, more food can be grown by the same number of persons, resulting in an end to undernourishment for that population.

In terms of productivity, I’ve considered two yields for camelina, a reasonably-attainable high of 2240 kg/ha (which is 1 ton/acre) and a low of 1120 kg/ha (half a ton per acre). But higher yields are undoubtedly attainable. Most (perhaps all) food crops show an increase in yield, year after year, decade after decade, as cultivation practices continue to develop for that particular crop, and as breeding/selection continues to improve the yield qualities of the variety. Camelina has not been under this type of intensive development, so there is room for improvement. In addition, camelina is very similar to canola in its cultivation. It is therefore very likely that camelina yields can be improved to equal those of canola.

At the high end of yields, camelina produces 3046 kg of fat per ha-yr. The calculation is 2240 kg of oilseed per ha, times 34% for the oil content, times 4 three-month crops per year. A value for macronutrient productivity normalized per year, rather than per crop, allows us to assess which crops offer the most productive use of our land and time resources.

Camelina oil is high in essential fatty acids: 20% omega-6, 34% omega-3, and also has 16% of omega-9 (a healthy but non-essential fat). The ideal proportions of omega-6 to omega-3 fat is anywhere from 3:1 to 10:1, so camelina has too little omega-6 and too much omega-3. But this also makes camelina oil a good choice to blend with other oils, such as an oil that has omega-6, but little or no omega-3 dietary fat.

Another approach would be to selectively breed a version of camelina with the right proportions of essential fatty acids. This type of selection to change the fatty acid content of an oil seed has been done successfully with flaxseed and sunflower seed. The result would be a camelina oilseed with nearly ideal qualities in every major area of concern.

Camelina oil has several advantages over the more productive oils. Camelina has more essential fatty acids than most other oils. Camelina has a light color and a light taste, even with no refinement. The first cold press produces an oil that is very palatable, and can be used in any cuisine. (The oil has a slight broccoli taste, to my palate.) And the oil keeps very well. The cold pressed oil keeps for up to two years with no refrigeration. It is the only oil high in omega-3 fat that keeps so well in storage. Camelina seed is high enough in oil at 30 to 40% to be processed on a small scale oil press. Soybeans, by comparison, are only about 18 to 20% oil, and so they cannot be processed in a small oil press. All of these qualities makes camelina a prime candidate for addressing the need for more dietary fat among the hungry of the world.

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