Russia’s attack on Ukraine has led to a fall in sunflower oil exports, but vegetable oil prices were already at an all-time high
8 April 2022
One of the global consequences of Russia’s attack on Ukraine is a shortage of sunflower oil. Some restaurants in Germany have reportedly even stopped selling chips because cooking oil has become so difficult to get hold of. Here is what you need to know.
Why are supplies of sunflower oil running low in some countries?
About 80 per cent of sunflower oil exports come from Ukraine and Russia. Exports from Ukraine have fallen 95 per cent due to Russia’s attack, Ievgen Osypov at trading company Kernel told Bloomberg TV on 5 April. Russia is still exporting the oil, but has said it will impose a quota from 15 April.
Can’t we just use other vegetable oils instead?
Many food producers are already doing this. But global vegetable oil prices were already at an all-time high before the war, and increased demand for other oils – the most common are rapeseed (canola), soybean and palm – is driving up their prices even further. Palm oil is likely to be the main substitute globally as it is the cheapest, says Thomas Alcock at the Technical University of Munich in Germany.
Why were prices already so high?
A combination of rising demand around the world due to people becoming wealthier and the growing use of vegetable oils as biofuels, and supply issues related to the pandemic and extreme weather. For instance, extreme heat in Canada last year hit rapeseed yields.
Can anything be done to relieve the shortage?
Yes. Globally, around 15 per cent of vegetable oils are turned into biofuels because of government subsidies and mandates. For instance, the European Union converts around 3.5 million tonnes of palm oil into biodiesel each year, almost equivalent to the amount of sunflower oil exported by Ukraine and Russia. Suspending or ending biodiesel subsidies could increase the amount available for food use.
How long will prices stay high?
No one can say for sure, as that depends on everything from what happens in Ukraine to what other countries do. Osypov estimates that Ukraine will produce 40 per cent less sunflower oil this year, and it remains to be seen how much can be exported.
Are alternative oils more or less healthy?
Monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats are thought to be better for us than saturated fats. Of the other main vegetable oils produced globally, rapeseed oil is lower in saturated fats than sunflower oil, soybean oil is slightly higher and palm oil is significantly higher. However, vegetable oils are complex mixes of chemicals and it is hard to measure their health effects directly.
Is sunflower oil especially good for frying?
While sunflower oil can be heated to higher temperatures before it starts smoking than some other oils, it is high in polyunsaturated fats that break down into compounds such as aldehydes when heated. These compounds typically taste and smell bad, and are harmful for your health.
Which oils are best for cooking, then?
While tastes vary, monosaturated and saturated fats are more heat-stable. Rapeseed and olive oil have high levels of monounsaturated fats such as oleic acid. Conventional breeding and genetic modification have also been used to create soybeans, safflowers and sunflowers whose oil has higher levels of oleic acid. Some food companies already use high-oleic oils for deep frying because the oil doesn’t have to be changed as often.
Is the substitution of other oils such as rapeseed a problem for people with allergies?
It is the pollen of rapeseed that triggers an allergic reaction in some people. Refined rapeseed oil shouldn’t contain any pollen. According to the UK Food Standards Agency, the risk of severe allergic reactions is negligible.
Are alternative oils more or less environmentally friendly?
According to a recent study by Alcock, on average, the equivalent of 2.9 kilograms of carbon dioxide is emitted per kilogram of sunflower oil produced. For rapeseed oil, it is 2.5 kg, palm oil 3.7 kg and soybean oil 4.3 kg. The main factor determining emissions is where crops are cultivated, he says, and soya and oil palms are often grown on land where rainforests have been cut down.
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