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Downey, Richard Keith (1927–)

Keith Downey, known as the “Father of Canola,” is a plant breeder who was largely responsible for transforming rapeseed into canola. This crop, first grown on the Prairies during World War II for industrial oil, now is a major vegetable oil crop, rivalling Wheat as the leading money-maker for Saskatchewan farmers. Born in Saskatoon in 1927, Keith Downey earned a BSc and MSc in Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan, and a PhD at Cornell University. In 1952 he was appointed head of alfalfa breeding at Agriculture Canada’s Lethbridge Research Station; he was co-developer of the alfalfa variety Beaver. In 1958 Downey transferred to the Saskatoon Research Station to direct the oilseed breeding program. He became the breeder or co-breeder of thirteen rapeseed/canola varieties and five condiment Mustard varieties, many of which dominated the Canadian production area for oilseeds. He was a leader in the drive to develop rapeseed varieties with low ratios of potentially harmful erucic acid and glucosinolates; with the transformation, rapeseed was renamed canola. When this objective was achieved, he sought earlier maturing varieties with higher oil content. In recent years he has been involved in developing improved canola varieties through genetic engineering.

In 1963 Downey received the American Oil Chemists’ medal for work on the biosynthesis of rapeseed fatty acids. In 1973 the Agricultural Institute of Canada presented him with the Grindley medal for contributions to agriculture. Then, in 1975, he shared the Royal Bank Award with Dr. Baldur Stefansson of the University of Manitoba for their success in rapeseed breeding. Downey was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1976 and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1979; he is also a Fellow of the Agriculture Institute of Canada and an honorary life member of the Canadian Seed Growers Association and of the Saskatchewan Rapeseed Association. He received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Saskatchewan in 1994 and the Eminent Scientist Award at the Ninth International Rapeseed Congress in 1995. In 1996 he was inducted into the Saskatchewan Agricultural Hall of Fame, and in 2002 into the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame. He served a term as president of the Saskatchewan Institute of Agrologists and of the Canadian Society of Agronomy. Downey’s expertise has been in demand around the world: in Europe, as well as in Chile, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Philippines, Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Pakistan. At present he manages brassica oilseed improvement programs in both China and India.

Marilyn Lewry

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