Cooking oil chaos exacerbates a looming world hunger crisis

Indonesia is the biggest producer of palm oil, the world's most consumed edible oil. PHOTO: REUTERS

CHICAGO/LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - The world's supply of cooking oil - already squeezed by war - is getting smaller.

Two months after Russia's invasion of Ukraine upended global agricultural trade, Indonesia is set to ban exports of cooking oil in the wake of a local shortage and soaring prices, adding to a raft of crop protectionism around the world.

The country accounts for more than a third of global vegetable oil exports, with China and India, the two most populous countries, among its top buyers.

Indonesia's supply of edible oil to the world is "impossible to replace", said Mr Carlos Mera, head of agricultural commodity markets research at Rabobank. "It's definitely a big blow."

Indonesia is the biggest producer of palm oil, the world's most consumed edible oil.

The south-east Asian nation's announcement of the ban on Friday (April 22) sent United States futures tied to soya bean oil, an alternative to palm, soaring to the highest price on record for a third straight day. In Britain, some supermarkets are limiting purchases of cooking oils, such as sunflower, olive and rapeseed.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has thrown the trade of sunflower oil into chaos and is squeezing already tight supplies of other vegetable oils used in food, biofuels and personal care products.

Weather woes across the world's major producers of edible oils are adding to fears of shortages. Dryness has crimped the size of soya bean harvests in South America, the world's biggest producer, and drought in Canada shrank production of canola, leaving little available supply.

While limited supply and soaring prices are set to worsen inflation of food items like salad dressing and mayonnaise in wealthy economies like the US, developing nations like India are set to feel the worst impacts. Such countries depend on imports of palm oil as a cheaper alternative to more costly soya bean, sunflower and canola oil.

"We are terribly shocked by this decision of Indonesia," said Mr Atul Chaturvedi, president of Solvent Extractors' Association of India, and edible oil trade group. "We were not expecting a ban like this."

The surge in core food costs is also leading to the biggest debate in a decade over using farmland to grow crops for producing fuel. The American Bakers Association, whose members produce 85 per cent of US baked goods, is warning about empty grocery store shelves.

"We desperately need the US Environmental Protection Agency to take the right action to allow soy bean oil stocks to shift back into food instead of being diverted to biodiesel production," said Mr Robb MacKie, the trade group's president.

Food-versus-fuel tensions are also flaring in other regions, including Indonesia.

The latest action by Indonesia is certain to "aggravate" food inflation that's already at a record high, said Mr Tosin Jack, commodity intelligence manager at Mintec in Britain.

Tight vegetable oil supplies are already prompting food manufacturers to improvise with their products, including trying to come up with new formulations and switch to substitutes when possible, according to Mr Jack.

For makers of packaged items like chips - whose ingredient lists often allow flexibility by stating the food can contain multiple vegetable oils - the move by Indonesia takes one more oil off an ever-shrinking list.

Changing food recipes, though, can be daunting and "does not necessarily produce a product with the same sensory characteristics", said Ms Jeannie Milewski, executive director for The Association for Dressings & Sauces, an Atlanta-based trade group that represents makers of products that most often rely on soya bean oil.

Soya bean oil futures in the US have nearly doubled since the start of 2021, driven in part by higher demand for ingredients to make biofuel. Prices then shot up to the highest on record after Russia's attack on Ukraine disrupted sunflower oil shipments and set off demand for alternative commodities.

Canadian canola had already climbed to an all-time high last year as devastating drought shrank crops across North American prairies. Palm oil in Asia has risen about 50 per cent and rapeseed in Europe 55 per cent in the past 12 months.

Still, "despite record prices overall, vegetable oil demand remains high because vegetable oils are an essential part of diets in all countries and particularly in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh", said Mr John Baize, an independent analyst who also advises the US Soybean Export Council.

Mr Baize calls Indonesia's restriction on palm oil exports a "big deal" but expects it won't last long. He noted that Indonesia exported 26.87 million metric tonnes of palm oil in 2021 compared with consuming 15.28 million metric tonnes domestically.

For now, Indonesia's ban intensifies worries about food costs and shortages, with expectations that other countries are likely to make similar moves as the war in Ukraine drags on. "We're likely to see a few more," said Rabobank's Mr Mera. "That exacerbates the concerns."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.