From palm oil to GMO feed: How is Europe’s sunflower shortage changing up food production?

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Some businesses, having committed to eliminating palm oil from their supply chains, are now looking to reintroduce the controversial ingredient. GettyImages/patrisyu
Some businesses, having committed to eliminating palm oil from their supply chains, are now looking to reintroduce the controversial ingredient. GettyImages/patrisyu

Related tags Ukraine-Russia conflict

Food formulators are being forced to change their recipes, and non-GMO breeders may have to integrate genetically modified feed into animal nutrition, due to the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

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

Now that Ukraine is in war with Russia, agricultural production is understandably disrupted. And knock-on effects are being felt by food producers across Europe.

Swapping out sunflower for soy

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

During that time period, the country produced around 17.5m metric tons of sunflower seeds.

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

Food makers are being forced to respond at short notice by replacing sunflower seed oil in food with soybean or rapeseed (canola)-based alternatives.

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

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

Que Choisir has raised concerns that the information on the packaging of these products will no longer be compliant. “Delays between ordering new packaging and its delivery to the factory are long, several months at the very least,” ​noted UFC-Que Choisir journalist Elsa Casalegno.

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

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

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

Replacing sunflower with palm oil

Some businesses, having committed to eliminating palm oil from their supply chains, are now looking to reintroduce the controversial ingredient.

In Sweden, crisp maker OLW said it will start to use palm oil in its production due to the shortage of sunflower oil.

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

In the UK, frozen food retailer Iceland Foods has said it will 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 very publicly committed to removing palm oil​ as an ingredient from its own label products in 2018, in a move it describes as ‘taking a stand against tropical deforestation’. In so doing, the company ‘greatly increased’ its reliance on sunflower oil.

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

In many instances, the company will be substituting 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 huge regret,” ​he stressed. Iceland, too, will use only certified sustainable palm oil.  All relevant products will display palm oil in the list of ingredients.

While Walker regrets the decision, noting the measure is ‘temporary’, not all in the industry feel the same. Michelle Desilets, executive director at the Orangutan Land Trust – a UK charity working to provide ‘sustainable solutions’ to the long-term survival of the orangutan in the wild – took to social media to welcome Iceland’s move.

“Good to see that Iceland Foods have finally (albeit reluctantly) come on board to do the right thing by sourcing sustainable palm oil.”

Non-GMO feed in organic meat?

Ukraine is also a major supplier of non-GMO sunflower seeds and cakes to the feed sector.

Concerns have been raised that non-GMO breeders across Europe will be forced to feed their animals with genetically modified soybean meal as a replacement.

Products from animals – including cattle, pigs, poultry, and farmed fish – which are ‘guaranteed’ GMO-free, may now be fed with GMO soybean meal, noted Que Choisir. This is particularly problematic for organic, ‘red label’, AOP, and free-range certified products, which require exclusively non-GMO feed in their production.

At least until last week, however, it appeared there was sufficient supply of non-GMO soybean meal in the region. FoodNavigator’s sister publication FeedNavigator reported soy shipments from Ukraine were continuing to arrive in Germany, via train, even though 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 of Food without Genetic Engineering (VLOG) on 29 March​.

“Currently…the supply situation looks better than it initially appeared to some observers,” ​noted VLOG managing director Alexander Hissting.

“Nevertheless, it is important to prepare for negative scenarios.” ​VLOG’s non-GMO ‘Ohne Gentechnik’ (OG) standard members are engaged in intensive discussions to ensure contingency plans are in place should there be a temporary gap in GMO-free feed supplies.

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