Record cooking oils are latest threat to surging food prices

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Sunflower oil. Photo: Getty
Sunflower oil. Photo: Getty

Prices of cooking oils, used in thousands of products from chocolate to margarine and instant noodles, are on a tear and that means shoppers need to brace for more expensive groceries.

From crude oil to grains and edible oils, commodities have been rocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sweeping US and European sanctions that ensued. Ukraine’s ports are closed, transport and logistics are severed, and buyers are unwilling - or unable - to pay the surging costs of insurance and freight required to secure cargoes from the Black Sea.

Ukraine and Russia are not only major suppliers of wheat, corn and barley, but they also ship more than 75% of global exports of sunflower oil, one of the world’s four leading edible oils. That’s made a tight global market even tighter and sent prices of palm and soybean oil, the two most used oils, to records.

“Sunflower oil exports from the Black Sea are at a standstill and crush operations in Ukraine are shutting down,” said Anilkumar Bagani, head of research at Sunvin Group, a Mumbai-based edible oils broker and consultant. “This will create a big void in global vegetable oils supplies.”

That void won’t be filled so easily as other oilseed and edible oils suppliers grapple with problems of their own. Drought slashed the canola crop in Canada last year, and reduced the soybean harvests in Brazil and Argentina. Malaysia is suffering from a chronic shortage of plantation workers, and Indonesia has restricted palm oil exports to secure its own domestic supplies. 

As a result, prices of the four major oils - palm, soybean, rapeseed and sunflower - have soared, and the rally is set to cascade down to shoppers in the form of higher costs for everything from candy to shampoo at local stores. Prices of palm oil, which makes up about a third of global supply, have more than doubled since the middle of June last year, while soybean oil is up about 50%. Sunflower oil from the Ukraine is also up about 50%, according to prices from UkrAgroConsult, the last of which was dated February 24, the day of the Russian invasion. And so too is rapeseed oil.

With no sign of the war easing, buyers are racing for supplies. China has issued orders to prioritise commodity security, and directed state-owned buyers to scour markets for raw materials. The country is also selling state reserves of edible oil and soybeans on the domestic market to cool prices.

Supply crunch

India, the top importer of edible oils, and Middle East countries, are especially at risk with Ramadan approaching. India imports about 60% of its cooking oil needs and consumer food prices have risen at the fastest pace in 14 months. 

Ramadan, a Muslim holy month marked by fasting from dawn and feasting at dusk, begins in early April and is followed by Eid al-Fitr in May. These events, celebrated by Muslims around the world, typically drive up demand for palm oil and other vegetable oils that are used to make treats like biryani and sweets.

There’s also a risk that the supply crunch will prompt more producing nations to limit exports to safeguard their own food security and control inflation. 

“Consumers have to face heightened prices and possibly more supply issues,” said Khor Yu Leng, a regional economist at Segi Enam Advisors, a consultancy. “From an export perspective, we should expect more domestic political populism to add to external shocks that roil food sectors and supply chains.”

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