A bumper sunflower harvest last year has helped reinforce the crop as a favourite among growers and consumers.
Sunflowers lived up to their name in 2018, thriving on the hot and sunny conditions experienced in many parts of Europe.
The EU estimated that yields averaged 2.5 tonnes/hectare, which was 18.0% more than the five-year average.
Romania saw yields average 2.9 tonnes/hectare, more than a third higher than the five-year average. While the weather helped sunflower crops thrive in 2018, the increase in yields over the last few years can also be attributed to improved husbandry and advances in breeding and genetics, helping farmers grow more and better-quality seeds on their land.
Bulgarian yields were up 19.0% on the year before¹. While the weather helped sunflower crops thrive in 2018, the increase in yields over the last few years can also be attributed to improved husbandry and advances in breeding and genetics, helping farmers grow more and better-quality seeds on their land.
The 2018 sunflower crop was bountiful in other countries too. Moldova harvested 804,000 tonnes of sunflower with a yield of 2.1 tonnes per hectare across an area of 385,000 hectares in 2018. The 10 year increase in yield for this region is a substantial 200%. While the weather helped sunflower crops thrive in 2018, the increase in yields over the last few years can also be attributed to improved husbandry and advances in breeding and genetics, helping farmers grow more and better-quality seeds on their land.
The 2018 sunflower crop was bountiful in other countries too. Russia is estimated to have had a 10.5 million tonne sunflower crop in 2018⁵ with a production area of 7.2 million hectares. Yield in Russia is high at 1.45 tonnes per hectare. The 10 year increase in yield for this region is 28%. While the weather helped, sunflower crops thrive in 2018, the increase in yields over the last few years can also be attributed to improved husbandry and advances in breeding and genetics, helping farmers grow more and better-quality seeds on their land.
The 2018 sunflower crop was bountiful in Ukraine with a harvest of 14.6 million tonnes of sunflower, 9% more than in 2017, according to Ukrainian crop analysts APK-Inform. The production of sunflower oil from that crop is expected to be 12% higher than last year at 6.4 million tonnes, with exports expected to be 11% higher at 5.9 million tonnes. The larger harvest should also generate an extra 9% of sunflower meal and cake, more than 80% of which will be exported.
While the weather helped sunflower crops thrive in 2018, the increase in yields over the last few years can also be attributed to improved husbandry and advances in breeding and genetics, helping farmers grow more and better-quality seeds on their land.
Strong production in Eastern Europe helped push global sunflower production to nearly 50 million tonnes in 2018, according to the US Department of Agriculture³. That represents a 27% increase in output over the last five years, making it one of the fastest growing crop sectors in the world. The EU expects further expansion over the coming years, with a 200,000 hectare increase in the EU sunflower area forecast between now and 2030, with most of that growth taking place in the Eastern part of the EU⁴.
Sunflower prices have eased alongside the large global crop and would have been even lower if it was not for a smaller North American crop in 2018. The reduction in prices may limit an increase in sunflower plantings for the 2019 harvest, but the crop is now an established and valuable one in the rotation of many farmers across the world.
The increase in sunflower yields and production has been much greater in Eastern Europe than in the US, where the area has actually fallen by a third over the last decade, with production down 25%. European yield gains over the last decade have been very impressive. In that time yields have jumped three-fold in Romania, doubled in Moldova, jumped by 150% in Bulgaria, jumped by 65% in Ukraine and increased by a 3rd in Russia.
The increase in Eastern European sunflower performance has driven world production up by 80% over the last ten years, with a 46% increase in yields.²
The value of versatility
The popularity of sunflowers is driven by its versatility as an oil, seed and as an animal feed and with growing concerns over health and climate change, the crop has a major role to play in improving diets and protecting the environment.
Sunflower oil contains more vitamin E than any other vegetable oil and as a plant-based product is cholesterol-free, low in saturated fats and rich in polyunsaturated fat. It also contains other vitamins including A, B1 and C as well as a range of minerals such as copper, phosphorus, zinc and magnesium. As part of a healthy diet alongside proteins, fruit and vegetables it can help protect the body from a range of disease including cardiac problems and some cancers. The oil is also a popular natural ingredient in skin care products helping to moisturise and repair damaged skin⁶.
The health benefits and plant-based goodness of sunflowers mean that it is set to play an increasingly important role among consumers who are looking for healthy options.
Over the last few years there have also been concerns among consumers about the effects of palm oil on the environment as more land is used to grow the crop. The palm oil industry has responded by focusing on its sustainability, but, inevitably, the concerns over the oil have meant that alternatives are being sought. Grown on existing farmland and in rotations that produce other valuable grain crops, sunflowers can play a very important role in providing a growing proportion of the 130 million tonnes of vegetable oil the world needs every year.
The world is also increasingly concerned about the impact that livestock are having on climate change, with criticism of the growing of crops specifically for feeding to livestock. Animal production is essential for many farmers across the world, has many agronomic benefits, such as manures, and plays an important role in human nutrition. However, the more that animals can be fed from crops, such as sunflowers, that also have also provided food for humans, the better.
Around half of a sunflower crop is the meal left over from the oil extraction process. This meal is an ideal ingredient for livestock providing them with many of the benefits that oil provides humans. So, increasing sunflower production will not only deliver more oil, but also more sustainable feed for the world’s livestock.
The same criticism that has been levelled at growing crops to feed to animals has also been directed at the growing of crops for biofuels. Sunflowers have never been used on a large-scale to make biodiesel and as Governments and oil companies back-off from using plant-based biofuels, sunflowers will be less affected than others.
The increase in global sunflower production has been partly driven by a growing demand for confectionery sunflowers. Health-conscious consumers are looking for alternatives to traditional sweet or savoury snacks and the taste, size and benefits of sunflower seeds mean that they can be eaten on their own or as an ingredient in other snack products. The fact that sunflowers can be eaten uncooked and unprocessed makes them unique among other grains, pulses and oilseeds and will continue to fuel the demand for confectionery sunflowers.
The Linus Pauling Institute in Oregon University says that sunflower seeds in a diet can help prevent cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Eating 28.3 grammes of sunflower seed can provide you with more than half your copper needs and a third of your Vitamin B-1 needs. As well as being easy to add to a salad, soaking sunflower seeds overnight means they can be pureed to add to a soup, while you can create a sunflower seed butter as an alternative to peanut butter if they are ground⁷.
It is clear that the future of sunflowers is as bright as its trademark yellow flowers, but that future will only be fully realised if yield gains continue to be delivered. Growing demand for all crops from a larger and richer world population alongside a desire to protect and enhance natural habitats means there is a need to deliver more from existing farmland.
The development of hybrid sunflower seed, for which Nuseed is a world-leader, has helped transform yields across the world. By focusing on enhancing the plant’s natural agronomic attributes and making it more resistant to disease and tolerant of drought, while boosting its nutritional value, plant breeders continue to deliver a high-quality, high-yielding and versatile crop that is helping to feed the world in a sustainable way.
Sources and references
² Sunflower country facts from UN FAOSTAT – http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/
USDA Vitamin E contents for chart: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminE-HealthProfessional/