Sunflower Oil Is in Short Supply as War Continues in Ukraine

Ukraine typically exports about half of the world's sunflower oil supply.

A sunflower in a field among other sunflowers
Photo: Kazue Tanaka / Getty Images

The war in Ukraine has entered its third month, and the global supply chain has increasingly been affected by Russia's invasion of its eastern European neighbor. One of the more measurable consequences is both the increasing costs and dwindling supplies of sunflower oil. Before the conflict began, Ukraine exported nearly half of the world's total supply of the cooking oil, and supermarkets in the United Kingdom and in parts of Europe are starting to put limits on the number of bottles that shoppers can buy.

"Supply chains, already disrupted by Covid-19, have been further complicated by the war in Ukraine, which is causing shortages in some ingredients like sunflower oil and raising the price of substitute ingredients," Kate Halliwell, the chief scientific officer of the UK's Food and Drink Federation, told The New York Times. "Manufacturers are doing all they can to keep costs down, but inevitably some will have to be passed to consumers."

Tesco, the UK's largest supermarket chain, has put a three-bottle-per-person limit on all cooking oils, including sunflower oil. Two other chains, Morrisons and Waitrose, have instituted a two-bottle limit.

According to the BBC, the UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) has temporarily given food manufacturers the OK to substitute coconut oil, soybean oil, or fully refined palm oil in place of sunflower oil. It has also said that, given the "extraordinary circumstances," manufacturers may also use rapeseed oil instead of sunflower oil and, at least for right now, they will not have to print new labels or update their ingredient lists if they do make these substitutions.

"Consumers should contact the manufacturer or brand for more information if they are unsure of the content of any product or have concerns about substitution," Emily Miles, the Food Standards Agency's chief executive told the outlet. (The FSA previously stated that the risk of allergic reactions to soybean oil was "negligible, and the risk from coconut or palm oil was low.)

Last week, Unilever also confirmed that it had started to use rapeseed oil in some recipes that previously used sunflower oil. "One of the things Unilever's good at is flexing our formulations so that we can take advantage of differential cost increases," Unilever CEO Alan Jope said during a call that was quoted by Reuters. "As supplies of sunflower oil have got really tight from the Ukraine, we've been able to switch to other oils like rapeseed oil quite effectively."

If you haven't noticed higher prices on cooking oils, pay attention to your receipt after your next shopping trip. Marketwatch reports that vegetable oil prices hit a new record high in February, before increasing by 23 percent in March. The price of a metric ton of soybean oil has jumped by 255 percent since 2019, and palm oil prices have increased by 200 percent.

In the United States, soybean producers might be facing the challenge of trying to make up for the decreasing availability of other cooking oils. "Two of the three major edible oils export markets used by bakers are in complete turmoil — sunflower oil from Ukraine and palm oil from Indonesia," Robb MacKie, the president of the American Bakers Association, told the Times. "The disruption of this ubiquitous ingredient will cause further strain on America's food system."

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