Vegetable oils are found in thousands of products, from cosmetics and shampoo to cookies and other food products. They’re also used for cooking by billions of people and, in fact, are the food commodity that’s growing the fastest, with demand consistently higher than supply.
Current disruptions in the worldwide supply caused by weather issues, armed conflict, supply chain disruptions and labor shortages are resulting in higher prices, causing a ripple effect of sticker shock throughout the food economy, according to Amanda Leland of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Biofuels, widely used in Europe and whose demand is increasing, are likewise affected. Businesses with interests in these and other vegetable-oil-related markets need to take notice. With oil products in crisis, there’s an opportunity for new avenues of increasing supply, including indoor farming and replacing certain vegetable oils with other types of oils.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exacerbated the shortage of cooking oils, especially sunflower oil. Before the war, Russia and Ukraine produced approximately 75% (subscription required) of the world’s sunflower oil. With countries banning Russian imports and the conflict preventing Ukraine producers from harvesting, the supply predictions plummeted.
The next year’s harvest for Ukraine looks dismal due to the country’s disrupted transportation system, labor shortages and other related factors. This has caused ripple effects around the world where sunflower oil is used, including in the U.K. and Germany.
The supply of vegetable oils is impacted by labor shortages due to Covid and weather issues as well as geopolitical conflicts. For palm oil producers in Malaysia, the second largest market provider, there’s an ongoing shortage of both laborers and fertilizer, hampering production (subscription required).
Meanwhile, in South America, where over 50% of the world’s soybeans are grown, labor problems and ongoing drought are severely impacting production. This will require food producers to adjust as soybean oil prices reach a nine-year high.
The Local Indoor Farming Opportunity
This problem has created an opportunity for traditional farmers. Farmers can fill the current need by starting to produce other vegetable oils such as olive oil, flaxseed oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil and sesame oil, which can be used as substitutes for vegetable oils.
Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) is also a solution. The infrastructure required for a controlled indoor grow environment can be easily built or adapted from existing structures, and it uses far less water than a traditional environment. This can allow for optimal results in places where access to water and fertilizer are limited and as we continue to face issues of drought.
Advanced indoor grow operations use hydroponics and artificial lighting to better control growing conditions and offer plants the nutrients and light levels they require. Automated tools can match energy, water, fertilizer, air flow and other data points to increase yields and profits. (Full disclosure: My company, Pangea, produces software and smart lighting solutions for indoor farming.)
A data-driven approach with centralized controls makes the oil-yielding indoor grow market financially viable, especially in the face of global conflicts and labor shortages. CEA can localize the growing of soybeans, palm or other plants. This will shorten supply chains and provide a long-term answer to regional issues driving price inflation and disruptions for providers and the end consumer.
One form of indoor agriculture is vertical farming, which produces foods in stacked layers instead of a field or greenhouse, allowing for a smaller footprint. This technique is not new but has existed for hundreds of years. Contemporary vertical farming uses LED technology instead of natural sunlight; the integration of light and technology gives precise data to farmers to reduce the human error that comes along with growing crops.
A market report from Technavio, a leading global technology research and advisory company, predicts a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 22% from 2021 to 2026 for the global vertical farming market due to increased demand and innovations in farming practices. The report points to the massive opportunity for localized indoor farming production of oil-yielding plants and the chance to address some of the supply issues with vegetable oils.
Techniques like these demonstrate how AgTech is quickly advancing to help secure a better future for farmers and consumers alike.
Source: Oil Products Crisis: New Opportunities For Plant-Based Alternatives
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