“If you didn’t buy organic or conventional sunflower oil before the war, you won’t find it,” says one supplier
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not only causing a devastating humanitarian crisis in the country; it is also causing a food crisis that is rippling throughout the world. Ukraine is a leading producer and exporter of food crops such as wheat and sunflowers. Supplies of sunflower oil, both organic and conventional/non-GMO, are severely restricted, according to sunflower oil suppliers.
“It’s messy on all fronts”
“Russia and Ukraine are jointly responsible for a very large percentage of the global production and supplies of sunflower seed and sunflower oil,” says Rob Kirby, president of Nexcel Natural Ingredients.
Ukraine has been the world’s leading producer of sunflower seeds, oil, and meal as well as the world’s top exporter of sunflower oil and meal. Ukraine also produces 75% of the world’s organic sunflower oil.
“Whether organic or conventional, there is a short supply; it’s messy on all fronts,” says Andrew Goose, east coast sales manager for Adams Vegetable Oil.
“If you didn’t buy organic or conventional sunflower oil before the war, you won’t find it,” says Chris Wiegert, chief supply chain officer at Healthy Food Ingredients. “Supply will be extremely tight at least for another year, if not longer.”
But demand remains strong. Nebraska-based Simply Sunflower, which processes and sells cold-pressed high oleic sunflower oil primarily to the retail market, has been inundated with calls since the war began.
“We would usually receive a handful of inquiries but in March we started getting about 50 inquiries per day from companies in the U.S. and worldwide,” says Sierra Forest, director of marketing and sales. “Sunflower oil is a hot commodity.”
But in Europe, the supply situation for organic sunflower oil looks more optimistic, according to Koen Zuyderwijk, CEO of Spack International.
“We have relations with farmers in other European countries,” he says. “These countries have more reliable supply and because of increased plantings we seem to have our organic supply bases very well covered.”
Tight supplies of both organic and non-GMO sunflower oil have driven up prices for both. Conventional/non-GMO oil is selling for record prices of $41-42 per hundredweight (100 pounds), according to John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association. Prices for organic oil have doubled and tripled since the war, according to David Bezenyei, sales manager at Columbus Vegetable Oils.
Cascading effect on other oils
The tight supply situation has had a ripple effect on other food-grade oil markets, as food manufacturers try to source alternatives to sunflower oil.
“Because oils are interchangeable, the prices increase along the whole spectrum of oils available,” Zuyderwijk says.
As an example, Kirby says the reduced supplies of sunflower oil caused Malaysia to temporarily restrict exports of palm oil to make sure their people had enough cooking oil.
“Since palm oil is the most prevalent type of cooking oil globally, that caused a cascading effect on the global market for all substitutable vegetable oils including soybean, canola, and olive, resulting in extreme market tightness and very high price,” he says.
Food companies are looking to reformulate their products with alternative oils, which can be challenging and costly.
A key advantage of sunflowers is that they are a strictly non-GMO crop, making the oil an attractive option for food manufacturers wanting to make non-GMO claims.
Nature’s Path, a leading manufacturer of organic cereals and snacks, had to substitute organic sunflower oil for organic safflower or soybean oil in some of its products, according to Jyoti Stephens, the company’s vice president of mission and strategy.
“We’ve used sunflower oil in our Que Pasa tortilla chip line and some of our granolas so in some cases we’ve had to change recipes, and our costs have doubled and sometimes tripled,” she says.
Safflower oil is considered a good option but the crop is grown on a much smaller scale than sunflowers, making supplies limited.
Bezenyei says some companies have switched to non-GMO canola oil but it can be challenging to get farmers to grow non-GMO canola.
“In the past there was a premium to grow non-GMO canola, but the premium now isn’t enough.”
According to Kirby, organic soybean oil is the most available. “Unlike organic sunflower and organic canola oils, organic soybean oil is generally available in the U.S.”
Other challenges: shipping
The sunflower oil supply challenge comes at a time when organic and non-GMO ingredient suppliers are still dealing with challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic— in particular shipping their products. There have been large increases in ocean shipping rates, cancellations in ocean vessel trips, and global port congestion. Suppliers also have difficulty finding shipping containers for their products, and the costs for containers have increased significantly, going from $4000 to $14-15,000, according to Goose.
Another challenge is U.S. domestic energy policies that encourage the use of biofuels, which are based on soybean oil as a primary ingredient. In the wake of the sunflower oil supply crunch, soybean oil has become more important for food use.
“When the food market and fuel market compete for the same basic input with a finite availability, that’s a precursor to a problem,” Kirby says.
Wiegert points out that other markets besides sunflower oil are being affected.
“There are such dynamic large problems,” he says. “We’re years from fixing this. We are picking on oils but other commodities are impacted like wheat, corn, and soybeans.”
“It’s a perfect storm of all things going wrong,” Goose says.
Solutions: more U.S. sunflower acreage, safe passage corridor
What are the solutions to the sunflower oil supply challenges? “Call Putin and tell him to chill,” Bezenyei says.
Seriously, he says the U.S. should increase domestic production of sunflowers.
“The U.S. and Canada have to get more farmers interested (in growing sunflowers),” he says. “Let’s get more sunflowers in the ground.”
Sandbakken says that is already happening. U.S. sunflower acreage will increase from 1.3 to 1.5 or 1.6 million acres this year. Despite the increase, much more production would be needed to reduce dependence on sunflower oil imports.
“We would need an exponential increase in domestic production,” Bezenyei says.
Another solution would be if agricultural products were able to leave Ukraine.
“It would be very helpful if a corridor could be established for the safe passage of all agricultural products from Ukraine to the world,” Kirby says.
This would help Ukraine’s export buyers and the country’s farmers. “It would provide revenue for the struggling agricultural backbone of Ukraine,” Kirby says.
Zuyderwijk recommends focusing on reliable suppliers. “And hopefully the situation in Ukraine will get resolved,” he says.
While supply chain impacts are a major problem, they are secondary to the humanitarian crisis facing Ukraine and its people due to Russia’s aggression.
“Our hearts are with the Ukrainian people and their farmers,” Stephens says. “You think about local food security and food security in Europe as well as the human impact of war. It’s devastating.”