Rising concerns about soy and canola oils derived from genetically altered seed are creating a new industry boom for sunflowers. Food manufacturers and restaurants need a non-GMO alternative, and it looks like the sunny flower that tracks the sun will meet growing demand.
The non-GMO status of sunflowers looks bright since the genes of sunflowers are hard to alter, at least for the foreseeable future (and as long as Monsanto doesn’t meddle). According to the US Department of Agriculture scientists Brent Hulke and Michael Foley, the plant is “recalcitrant to (genetic) transformation.” Sunflowers also have many wild relatives, making it possible for transgenes to proliferate all sorts of weeds (and super-weeds) if they were tinkered with genetically.
John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, says:
“As an industry it’s been our choice to stay non-GMO.”
As more consumers demand foods and oils without GM contamination, as well as a healthy demand for non-GM lecithin (primarily used as an emulsifier in the food industry and most often obtained from GM soy) sunflower farmers are looking at a boom in business.
Food manufacurers are shifting away from GM oils and looking for oils that have heart-healthy, high-oleic acid values. Sunflowers fit the bill. They contain a combination of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats with low saturated fat levels.
Rick Robbins, CEO of Colorado Mills, a sunflower oil processor based in Lamar, Colorado, says:
“Non-GMO and zero trans fat are big drivers for the demand for sunflower oil.”
Christine Brown, sales and marketing manager for California-based Adams Vegetable Oils, agrees:
“More and more companies are looking for non-GMO oils; demand is very high for non-GMO.” Her company’s oils are all non-GMO certified.
Aside from being non-GMO, sunflower oil doesn’t affect food taste when used in cooking since it has a light flavor. It is richer in Vitamin E than soy or canola oils, too.
Furthermore, organic sunflower lecithin pays. It can cost up to 10 times more than soy-derived and other types of lecithin, but the price will likely decrease as more farmers start to grow non-GMO sunflowers.
Due to the increased demand, sunflower crops have grown in the U.S. by more than 2 million acres in the last year alone. North and South Dakota lead the way with increased sunflower blooms, with around 18,000 acres being planted currently. Additional increases of 39% are expected as people look to ditch GMO products and go organic.