It’s difficult enough that the cost of food keeps rising. Now the cost of cooking is going up as well.
That’s because much of the world is on the brink of a shortage of edible cooking oil. Suddenly, we have less than we need—and most of this growing problem is man-made.
The natural disasters of earthquakes, hurricanes, and droughts can be devastating. Even worse, however, are the unnatural disasters—the manmade ones that are within our power to avoid.
The soaring cost of cooking oil is a perfect example. As a farmer in India, I’ve come to understand that the problem is not just due to Russia’s aggressive war on Ukraine. It’s also about lack of access to agricultural technology.
Whatever the causes, cooking-oil scarcity is starting to hurt consumers everywhere. In the United Kingdom, supermarkets have rationed it, limiting purchases to three bottles of cooking oil per customer. Stores in Belgium, Greece, Spain, and Turkey have adopted similar rules.
Here in India, there is no shortage of oil as of now, but prices of edible oils have increased steeply. I’ve never seen them so high.
All of this is on top of a massive explosion in food prices. In March, the cost of food hit an all-time high, according to the United Nations. Prices eased slightly in April, which is good news, but the improvement was modest. It’s like we’ve just scaled Mount Everest and now we’re resting a few feet below the summit. The air is still thin, and the weather remains uncertain. It’s a dangerous place.
The immediate cause of our cooking-oil crisis is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which exports more sunflower oil than any other country—about half the planet’s production, in fact. Ukraine and Russia combined account for three-quarters of the world’s sunflower oil.
These supplies are suddenly unavailable in the quantities we’ve come to expect. The price of sunflower oil has leaped by more than 40 percent since the war started in February, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
The world has ways of coping, as sunflower oil is not the only kind of cooking oil available. In my home, in addition of sunflower oil, we use many kinds of edible oils: ground nut, palm, gingelly (a.k.a. sesame), mustard (a.k.a. canola), and more.
Yet the shortage of sunflower oil puts massive pressure on every variety of cooking oil. As a result, each one is becoming more expensive. The most vulnerable people suffer the most, and not just because they have less disposable income. They also tend to rely on cooking oils more than people in developed countries. The scarcity of these products hits them harder.
War may be the ultimate manmade disaster—a huge calamity brought on entirely by the lethal choices of combatants. The most immediate solution to the global challenge of food insecurity, including the inflated price of cooking oils, would be for Russia to halt this act of military aggression against Ukraine.
To blame everything on Russia’s war of conquest, however, is to neglect another important factor: The refusal of many governments to let farmers use the best agricultural technology.
I’ve experienced the problem firsthand. Although farms in my area are not major producers of cooking oil, I’ve planted sunflowers, palms, and soybeans. I gave up partly because we don’t have a local mill for the extraction of sunflower or soybean oil.
An even bigger challenge, though, were the pests. Pod borers savaged our soybeans. We controlled them through traditional methods of crop protection and enjoyed some success—but our government also prevents us from using the safe GM technologies that would have both reduced our costs and boosted our harvests.
I believe that with GM soybeans, we would have increased our yields by about one third. In other words, we would have done more with less, creating an abundance that would have led to lower cooking-oil prices for consumers and allowed India to be self-sufficient in edible oil.
Yet we didn’t have this option—and today, I don’t produce soybeans at all because I can’t use the science-based technologies that farmers in North and South America have access to. It makes sense for me to focus on other crops. Lots of other farmers in my region and elsewhere have made similar choices.
The result is that the world has less cooking oil than it might.
Had Russia not invaded Ukraine, the global food crisis could have been avoided, but a portion of our problem is the result of a bad choice to prohibit a proven technology.
This is the definition of a manmade disaster. And now we’re all paying a lot more to cook our food.