Seed World

Birdwatching Craze Helps Drive Sunflower Boom

Trygg Olson of Nuseed Canada.

Global sunflower acreage is growing, and breeding companies are having to keep pace.

Funny to think that birdwatching might be a contributor to a heightened interest in sunflower in Canada.

Both sunflower acreage and prices were up in 2020, and one factor was the fact that Canada’s bird food market is booming, says Nuseed Canada Field Sales Leader Trygg Olson.

Canadian farmers intended to seed 104,400 acres of sunflowers in spring of 2020, a rise of 36% over the previous year and the largest acreage rise for sunflower in a decade, according to Statistics Canada figures.

“It definitely was not the main driver, but a lot of people have stayed home during the pandemic, so there’s likely a lot more people feeding birds and birdwatching. The bird food industry has been huge — the hobby is big,” Olson says. “With everyone being shut in, people like to see some life when they’re stuck in the house.”

Like the crop itself, the present — and future — for sunflowers is bright and cheerful. Growth in worldwide acreage continues, and according to industry experts such as Mark Jackson, general manager at Nuseed Americas, that’s almost all because of increasing demand for sunflower oil.

“The category is expected to grow more than 6% over the next five years, with India leading the demand side,” he explains. “India is the top importer of sunflower oil globally, and with increasing disposable income among consumers and their looking for healthier food options, sunflower oil will see more growth to come.”

Breeding of hybrids that provide healthier oil with more processing stability therefore continues — and in addition, oil processing methods are now in play that avoid the destruction of vitamins and other health-providing biochemicals, adding to the oil’s health profile.

Bill Gilbert agrees that demand for healthy, lower-priced edible oil is driving up demand for sunflower seed to plant around the world, especially demand in developing countries and in the Asia-Pacific region. Gilbert, who is the commercial marketing manager for the Americas at S&W Seed Company in Colorado, adds that “new oil products including high-oleic and the pressed oil segments, which have high smoke temperature points, are increasing in use for cooking.”

There is another reason that the oil is in demand. In a recent report called “Sunflower Oil Market Growth, Trends and Forecasts 2020-2025,” experts from Research and Markets point to

fluctuating prices of oils such as palm and soybean oil as a global demand driver. According to Nuseed, the global vegetable oil market is currently dominated by palm oil, followed by soybean, canola, sunflower and coconut oil.

The report’s authors note that snack manufacturers are “readily opting for sunflower oil due to its capability to impart good properties to the products at a comparatively lower cost,” and that in addition, sunflower oil “provides cost-effective solutions in other industries as well. It’s considered for a variety of skincare products due to its lower pricing as compared to other ‘nourishing’ oils like argan, almond and olive oil.”

Hybrid Landscape

Globally, there are some hybrid trait trends to make note of.

John Sandbakken, executive director of the U.S. National Sunflower Association, explains that in some other countries in Europe and beyond, some traditional linoleic hybrids are still being cultivated, but in the U.S., NuSun and high-oleic hybrids reign.

NuSun hybrids were introduced in 1998 through a collaboration between the sunflower industry and breeders at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They produce a mid-oleic oil with under 10% saturated fat, shelf-stability without partial hydrogenation, great taste and food manufacture performance.

And while NuSun oil is still in demand, Sandbakken explains that because the market wants saturated fat levels at or below 7%, along with good stability and taste — all of which high-oleic oil provides — the shift to growing more high-oleic hybrids will continue.

Nuseed’s Europe General Manager Patrick Dieterich notes that investment in growing technologies and processing is resulting in growers in Russia and Ukraine “moving away from farm saved seed into certified and higher-yielding hybrids.”

“As global demand grows, so will the demand for hybrids with higher yields, improved disease resistance, lower water usage and regional production performance,” Jackson adds.


Top Performance Issues

When asked to list the most serious concerns affecting current sunflower production, Gilbert points first to weed management.

“Broadleaf weeds have always been difficult to control,” he says, “but in recent years introduction of herbicide-tolerant hybrids has improved controls significantly.”

Because sunflower is currently a non-GMO crop that is native to North America, insects and disease have evolved right along with the plant, notes Jim Gerdes, Nuseed R&D director sunflower and trait development.

“Sunflower can have more issues with insects and disease than non-native crops,” he says.

Using molecular markers, Nuseed has come a long way in mapping and identifying genes for downy mildew. It is currently revamping its lineup to include new, more robust genes to aid in doing this.

Clearfield hybrids gained large market share in early 2000s, and ExpressSun hybrids followed. Neither product provides perfect standalone solutions, says Gilbert, and generally require pre-emergent and/or tank mix post-emergent applications. He adds that the Clearfield hybrids have also enabled reasonable control of a parasitic weed called Orabanche only found in Europe that affects sunflower crops there.

On the disease front, white mold/sclerotinia fungus causes significant yearly yield loss in sunflowers grown for both oil seed and confection snacks, Gilbert explains.

“Fungicides provide little control and to date breeders have not been able to provide adequate genetic resistance,” he reports. “Phomopsis has also been an increasing problem over the past five years. This foliar and stem fungus causes seed loss and standability problems. Research has shown some value from herbicides and breeders are working to provide genetic tolerances.”

David Pearson, head of branding at Limagrain Field Seeds, explains that Limagrain’s sunflower breeding activities are very much driven by technology, focused on both various herbicide tolerances and quality traits such as high-oleic. Limagrain sunflower seed is produced in Europe, Argentina and California.

“We consider sunflower a strategic crop,” Pearson says. “The oil has a wide appeal and that’s going to continue to be reflected in demand from farmers.”

—with files from Marc Zienkiewicz