Ukraine, Russia, and Sunflowers
The sunflower originated in North America and was domesticated by Native Americans. Spanish explorers carried the plant back to Europe around 1500, where it became a popular ornamental flower. It was first commercialized for oil production in Russia and Ukraine in the 19th century. Many now consider it a national symbol of Ukraine.
Together, Russia and Ukraine now produce more than half of the world's sunflowers. These two countries account for most of the increase in sunflower production since 2000. This market dominance has caused many to worry that Russia's invasion of Ukraine will seriously affect the global vegetable oil supply.
Other major sunflower producers include Argentina and Romania. The US is a minor producer. Most of its production is in the Dakotas, as I wrote about in this Ag Data News article.
Sunflowers are typically crushed into oil in the country in which they are produced (unlike soybeans). About 70% of global sunflower oil production is exported, and Ukraine and Russia account for two thirds of these exports. The war affects a huge percentage of global sunflowers.
The world produced 225 million metric tonnes of vegetable oils in 2019, contributing about 10% of total calories consumed by humans. In the US, vegetable oils make up 19% of calories consumed.
Sunflower oil makes up less than 10% of vegetable oils. Palm oil, produced mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia is the largest category, followed by oil from soybean and rapeseed (which includes canola and mustard). The largest category in "Other" is palm kernel oil, which is produced from the palm kernel rather than the palm fruit.
The prices of the major vegetable oils tend to move up and down together, which indicates that most consumers view them as substitutable. The prices of all oils have increased substantially since early 2020, but have not seen large increases since the invasion. This is because a large disruption to sunflower oil production has a small effect on the global vegetable oil market.
All vegetable oil users are seeing higher prices, but mostly not because of the invasion. Only users that relied on sunflower oil from Ukraine or Russia and cannot easily switch to other oils may be facing high prices because of the invasion.
Young sunflowers follow the sun. Their heads rotate from east to west as the sun moves across the sky, which allows them to grow faster. As they age, sunflowers lose their youthful innocence. They stiffen up and remain stationary, facing east and unable to turn away.
Like much of the world, I find myself looking east and unable to turn away from the horrific scenes. Although the global vegetable oil market is not hugely affected, Russia has caused devastation in many areas when it invaded Ukraine. Tatyana Deryugina has posted an excellent list of resources for those interested in helping Ukraine.
I made the figures in this article using this R code.