Ukraine's Sunflowers Are a National Symbol and a Major Crop — Now Global Sunflower Oil Supplies Are Facing a Shortage

Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest producers and exporters of the pantry staple.

A sunflower field in Lviv, Ukraine
Photo: Petro Pokydko / Getty Images

Two Spanish supermarket chains have put per-customer limits on bottles of sunflower seed oil over concerns that supplies of the kitchen staple could run low due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The Mercadona supermarket is now limiting each customer to five liters of oil per day (no, that's not a typo), while the Consum chain says its shoppers can only buy one liter a day.

Makro, a chain of warehouse stores, has also put a one bottle-per-day limit on its members. "The terrible situation that Ukraine is experiencing at the moment is causing imbalances in the supply of products that come from the conflict zone," a Makro press release read. "Items such as sunflower oil [...] are experiencing a lack of supply through the Spanish market and at Makro, we are also being affected by this problem."

Spain isn't the only country that might see a shortage of sunflower oil. According to John Sandbakken, the executive director of the (U.S.) National Sunflower Association, Russia and Ukraine together produce around 60 percent of the world's supply of sunflower oil. "They export about 75 percent of it, so obviously they're really key exporters, and something that [significant] really is going to affect the world by not having that oil in the market," he told AgWeek.

Sunflowers, which are the national flower of Ukraine, have grown in the country since the mid-1700s. According to MIR Corp, a travel company that specializes in eastern European destinations, sunflower oil became increasingly popular in Ukraine because the Orthodox Church did not restrict its use during Lent. (Orthodox church members weren't supposed to cook with butter or lard between Ash Wednesday and Easter.) As a result, fields of sunflowers became more widespread, and sunflower seeds became an in-demand snack.

In the years since, any parts of the world — especially India and parts of the European Union (EU) — have become reliant on Ukraine's previously steady supply of sunflower oil. According to the trade group Fediol, the EU buys around 200,000 tons of sunflower oil from Ukraine every month, accounting for between 35–45 percent of its total supply. The organization has predicted that "local stockpiles" of the oil could run out in the next four to six weeks.

"Beyond that period, it is likely that lack of availability of crude sunflower-seed oil and limited alternatives will lead to a shortfall," Fediol said, according to Bloomberg. "This will be felt up to the consumer level."

The United States currently exports less than a quarter (20 percent) of its sunflower oil, but Sandbakken expects that percentage to increase as other markets try to find alternate sources. He also predicts that prices will increase as a result and, as Time points out, that could affects fried snacks like potato chips. "We're not really competing in the same markets, but when you take that much oil off of the market, it's something that's going to have a ripple effect about all veg-oil markets and so it's going to have some effect on our business," he told AgWeek.

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