How is the sunflower shortage in Europe changing food production?

Ukraine is known as the “breadbasket” of Europe. With more than 70% of the country’s land devoted to agricultural production, Ukraine is a major producer of sunflower, corn, soybeans, wheat and barley.

Now that Ukraine is at war with Russia, agricultural production is understandably disrupted. And the ripple effects are being felt on food producers across Europe.

Replace sunflower with soy

Of all the crops that Ukraine grows, it is best known for the production of sunflower seeds. In the 2021/2022 crop year, Ukraine recorded the highest sunflower seed production volume of any country in the world, according to Statista.

During this period, the country produced approximately 17.5 million metric tons of sunflower seeds.

With oilseed cultivation and production now largely halted in Ukraine and trade disrupted, delivery to food manufacturers across Europe has come to a standstill.

Food manufacturers are forced to react in the short term by replacing sunflower oil in food with alternatives based on soy or rapeseed (canola).

According to French consumer group Que Choisir, products likely to be affected by a shortage of sunflower oil include edible oils which include sunflower oil; margarine; and foods that are cooked, breaded or fried in oil, such as crisps or breaded fish.

Other food products that could be impacted include those containing lecithin or sunflower seeds, such as cookies and cakes or ready meals.

Que Choisir has expressed its fears that the information on the packaging of these products is no longer compliant. “The lead times between ordering a new packaging and its delivery to the factory are long, several months at least”, noted UFC-Que Choisir journalist Elsa Casalegno.

This means that potential allergen risks will not be declared on the packaging, she warned.

In France, the Directorate General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Fraud Prevention (DGCCRF) works with consumer associations, manufacturers and distributors to determine the best course of action.

Que Choisir believes that a sticker should be affixed to the packaging of each affected product informing consumers of the change. Affected products could include cookies, cakes and chocolates that have had their sunflower lecithin content replaced with soy lecithin.

Replace sunflower with palm oil

Some companies, having pledged to eliminate palm oil from their supply chains, are now looking to reintroduce the controversial ingredient.

In Sweden, crisps maker OLW said it would start using palm oil in its production due to the shortage of sunflower oil.

To do this, the manufacturer will only buy palm oil certified Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which aims to ensure full traceability and zero deforestation.

In the UK, frozen food retailer Iceland Foods said it would replace some sunflower oil with palm oil to manage the current shortage. An “unintended consequence” of the war, according to managing director Richard Walker, is the scarcity of sunflower oil.

Iceland pledged very publicly to remove palm oil as an ingredient from its own branded products in 2018, in a move it describes as “taking a stand against tropical deforestation”. In doing so, the company has “significantly increased” its dependence on sunflower oil.

“Now that it has suddenly become completely untraceable, we are working closely with our suppliers to find alternatives,” noted Walker.

In many cases, the company will replace sunflower oil with rapeseed. But there are some recipes for which rapeseed will not suffice, due to processing properties or taste issues. For these products, Iceland will revert to palm oil.

“I say this with immense regret” he pointed out. Iceland, too, will only use certified sustainable palm oil. All affected products will display palm oil in the ingredient list.

Although Walker regrets the decision, noting that the measure is “temporary,” not everyone in the industry feels the same way. Michelle Desilets, executive director of the Orangutan Land Trust – a UK charity that works to provide ‘sustainable solutions’ to the orangutan’s long-term survival in the wild – took to social media to welcome Iceland’s decision.

“Good to see that Iceland Foods has finally (albeit reluctantly) agreed to do the right thing by sourcing sustainable palm oil.”

Food without GMO in organic meat?

Ukraine is also a major supplier of non-GMO sunflower seeds and meals for the animal feed sector.

Concerns have been raised that non-GMO farmers across Europe will be forced to feed their animals GM soybean meal as a replacement.

Animal products — including cattle, pigs, poultry and farmed fish — that are “guaranteed” GMO-free can now be fed GMO soybean meal, Que Choisir noted. This is particularly problematic for certified organic, “red label”, PDO and free-range products, which exclusively require non-GMO foods in their production.

At least until last week, however, it seemed there was an ample supply of non-GMO soybean meal in the region. FoodNavigator’s sister publication FeedNavigator reported that soybean shipments from Ukraine continued to arrive in Germany, by train, even as ports were closed.

The Danube Soya office in kyiv continues to be active and expects the Ukrainian soybean harvest in 2022 to be 70% of the previous year’s volume, according to the Association for Food without Genetic Engineering (VLOG) March 29.

“Currently… the supply situation looks better than it initially looked to some observers,” noted VLOG general manager Alexander Hissting.

“Nevertheless, it is important to be prepared for negative scenarios.” Members of VLOG’s non-GMO ‘Ohne Gentechnik’ (OG) standard are engaged in intensive discussions to ensure that contingency plans are in place in the event of a temporary shortage of non-GMO food supplies.

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