The rape plant (Brassica napus) is related to mustard, turnip, cabbage, radish, and horseradish plants. Its oil has been used for centuries as a cooking oil in Europe and Asia (India and the Far East).
Both rapeseed oil and mustard seed oil contain relatively high levels of a fatty acid called erucic acid. As with some other oils, when heated to high temperatures unrefined rapeseed oil can release fumes which have been theorized to be associated with an increased lung cancer risk. These fumes have been blamed on its high erucic acid content; perhaps undeservedly since refined rapeseed oil did not seem to share this characteristic and since mustard seed oil is still a staple cooking oil in South and East Asia.
In any case, rapeseed oil was not sold as a food in the United States for many years, and this is why a low-erucic acid version was developed by traditional cross-breeding of varieties that had lower than usual levels. Originally developed in Canada in 1974, it was dubbed “Canola” oil to distinguish it from traditional rapeseed oil; the name implies its Canadian origin. This oil is often sold in Europe under its more commonly known “rapeseed” rather than the “Canola” name, even if the low erucic acid type is used.
Canola (low erucic acid rapeseed) oil received GRAS status in 1985, allowing it to be sold as a food or food additive in the United States.
These dates are long before the first commercial GMO crops were approved by the U.S. government in the mid-1990s. Since Canola’s breeding history actually goes back decades before that, it clearly was originally developed without the use of genetic engineering (GE, or biotechnology). Today, most of the canola grown in North America is GMO (from GE seeds); though there are still some Identity Preserved (IP) canola crops, from which is produced non-GMO canola oil.
The history of the use of rapeseed oil in food in the US is well summarized in the preamble of the final rule which affirmed the GRAS status of low erucic acid rapeseed (LEAR) oil (Federal Register, 1985: 21 CFR 184.1555 (c)(4)).