It was an awkward moment. I had been in Yangzhou a week, one of a dozen foreign writers attending the Slender West Lake Poetry Festival, and throughout the trip, our very diligent hosts had conspired to show us all that was best about the local culture, from brush painting to fine cuisine to the live traditions of calligraphy and guzheng (Chinese zither).
Best of all, for me at least, were the gardens, from the parkland around the lake itself to classical courtyards where extraordinary specimens of penjing (the Chinese equivalent of bonsai) stood proud amid the jade flowers and flowering plums. Every turn had presented new pleasures: not just the orientalism that this hurried description might suggest, but living examples of how human beings can get it right in their dealings with the land. Yet, according to my hosts, one particularly memorable sight was to come.
From the one hint I’d been given I should have guessed – I would see a great expanse of sweetly scented yellow flowers, running all the way to the horizon. But how could I have known, in that Eden of cherry groves and jade flowers, that the coming treat would be nothing more than a Chinese version of those industrial-scale oilseed rape fields that, supported by extravagant subsidies, have come to dominate the British landscape? Was it possible, as we descended from our coach after a two-hour drive, that we, and the thousands of others abandoning their cars anywhere they could and streaming down this gridlocked road, had come to see a rape field?
It was, as I say, an awkward moment – and yet there was something magical about it, too. Unable to push any further through the crowds, our driver had simply stopped and let us off to walk the last mile with the other pilgrims, some carrying babies and toddlers in their arms, many wearing surgical-style masks over their mouths. By the roadside, enthusiastic country folk peddled rapeseed honey (apparently considered to possess healing properties) and when we finally reached the main field, a five-storey pagoda at its centre, something like a fair was in progress, with people selling everything from pig meat to inflatable plastic toys. The smell – boiled pork mixed with candy sugar and rapeseed pollen – was overwhelming, but the exhilaration was strangely contagious, and when one of our host party turned to me, smiling, waiting for my positive reaction, I found myself nodding and mumbling that most British of compliments. “Lovely,” I said. “It’s just . . . lovely.”
But is it? For many, oilseed rape (marketed as “canola” in the United States after the original tag, “Lear” – for “low erucic acid rapeseed” – failed to catch on) is a classic indicator of all that is dubious about industrialised agriculture.
It was made infamous when the agrochemical giant Monsanto sought damages of $400,000 from Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian grain farmer, after he was found to be growing Monsanto’s patented genetically modified rapeseed. The seed had blown into Schmeiser’s field: a common problem, as most North American rapeseed production is GM-based. Rape is prized for its high tolerance of herbicides, while the oil is commonly obtained by solvent-based processes, with further chemicals employed to bleach and deodorise it. Moreover, after these initial treatments, it is often used in the production of processed food where, some researchers claim, trans fatty acid levels of up to 40 per cent can occur during hydrogenation.
The jury is still out on the consequences for land use and consumer health. So, as pretty as it may be in full flower beneath the early summer sun, oilseed rape may not be so lovely after all.