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Sunflower: increasing the area and optimising the next harvest of an essential crop for food sovereignty

22 Mar 2022

Paris, March 22, 2022 - The Russian-Ukrainian war between the world's two leading producers of sunflower seeds, oil and meal is impacting agricultural markets. The demand for sunflower seeds is expected to be very strong in the next season.
An increase in sunflower acreage in France (700,000 ha on average in recent years) accompanied by an optimisation of crop management would compensate, in part and pending the resumption of normal trade flows with our Ukrainian partners, for the loss linked to the reduction or even the cessation of imports of sunflower oil and cake from Ukraine.

The cultivation of sunflower, a key species for European food sovereignty, must therefore be encouraged because of its many advantages and the optimisation of cultivation made possible by the research, development and innovation activities carried out by Terres Inovia, the technical institute for the vegetable oil and protein sector and the hemp sector.

All the players in the oilseed and protein crop sector, including Terres Inovia, are involved on a daily basis in optimising and securing the sunflower crop. This mobilisation has been particularly important for the past two years within the framework of the Téo action and development plan, which aims to consolidate sunflower in the historical cultivation basins and to redeploy this crop in the basins of Eastern and Northern France. Indeed, this oil and protein crop has many advantages to enable producers to meet the challenges of climate change, the reduction of phytosanitary products and societal demands.

The sunflower crop in France has had very good technical and economic results in 2021 with average yields ranging from 28 to over 30 quintals per hectare (ha) depending on the production basin. For the coming sunflower season, the oil-protein industry is counting on the advantages of sunflower and the dynamic yield and surface area of past years to ensure that the next harvest continues this trend and consolidates French food sovereignty.

Sunflower is a crop that requires little fertilizer. In the conditions of 2022, it is particularly important to be able to count on the low fertilizer needs of certain crops, including sunflower, to balance the crop rotation and the margins of the farms. The negative impact on margins of under- or over-fertilisation of the sunflower crop is increased in 2022, with, for example, a margin gain of 100 to 120 €/ha by providing an optimal dose of 40 units of nitrogen. According to the references acquired by Terres Inovia, nitrogen applications in vegetation, before the 14-leaf stage of the sunflower, are as well or better valorized depending on the year than the applications at sowing. Sunflower is a crop with low phosphorus and medium potash requirements. However, the high cost of PK fertilisers should not lead to neglecting this item, especially in poor soils; a soil analysis is then necessary to know if a dead end is possible.

In a context of climate change, sunflower uses small amounts of water, with irrigation ending early in the crop cycle, thus limiting the effects of possible irrigation water rationing that often occurs later in drought conditions. Thus, depending on the situation, 1 to 3 water turns of 35 to 40 mm each are sufficient for the crop and allow a significant improvement in the margin. For example, for an average indicative sales price of 650 €/ton of seeds, and for a water price of 20 c€/m3, a well-controlled 70 mm irrigation results in a minimum gain of 250 €/ha.

For Arnaud Rousseau, President of the FOP: "At a time when the conflict in Eastern Europe is upsetting the world balance and protein supplies, rarely has the national and European issue of protein sovereignty appeared so essential. France must increase its production of plant proteins to feed its population and livestock as quickly as possible, given the strategic importance of the current issues. At the same time, climate change is forcing farmers to adapt their practices and integrate new technical benchmarks. In this context, I am convinced that sunflower has a key role to play in crop rotation. It is a crop with many advantages and its management must be optimised.

For Antoine Henrion, President of Terres Univia: "The players in the oilseed and protein crop sector are mobilised to provide farmers with the best possible support, especially in view of the geopolitical context. We are doing everything we can to ensure that sunflower crops once again contribute to the technical and economic performance of the French farm and to the expectations of farmers.

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