Sunflowers are spectacular, highly productive and a major agricultural export of Ukraine. They are also the national flower of Ukraine and are a powerful symbol of the resistance of the Ukrainian people to the invasion by Russia. Russia and Ukraine between them produce 60 per cent of the world’s sunflower oil.
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The sun has been revered by many cultures, from the builders of passage tombs like Newgrange to belief in the descent of the Japanese emperor from an ancient sun goddess. Plants, like the sunflower, which move in response to the sun’s daily traverse across the sky, have also held a particular fascination for people.
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The young buds of sunflowers move every day from east to west to face the sun, finally settling on facing east when the flowers open. This gives sunflower fields an astonishing regularity with all flowers pointing in the same eastwards direction. This growth movement of plants in response to the sun is called “heliotropism”, from the Greek helios for sun.
Sunflowers originated in the Americas and the first domestication of sunflowers was by Native Americans who used them for their seeds and oil. They are an annual plant, which means they germinate, grow, flower, set seed and die all within one year. Despite this fast life cycle, ornamental varieties can grow up to 9m (nearly 30ft) tall, although commercial varieties are much shorter for structural stability and to concentrate resources into the seeds which are pressed to produce oil.
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After being brought back to Europe by explorers in the 17th century, sunflowers were subject to more intense domestication in the former USSR where they were bred to be more productive varieties and to optimise oil-producing varieties suited to the steppe soils of Eurasia.
Ukraine produces more sunflower oil than any other country on the planet, indeed they produce more than 100kg of sunflower oil per person in the population. It is transported around the world as a major component of edible vegetable oils and the disruption of the Ukrainian sunflower cropping season due to war not only threatens the livelihoods of Ukrainian farmers, but is leading to price rises in many foods that rely on the addition of sunflower oil or that need cooking in sunflower oil.
Other sources of vegetable oils such as soy and palm oils may fill some of the gap left by reduced exports from Ukraine and Russia but there are significant issues with the sustainable production of soy and oil palm from land converted from tropical forests.
The story of the sunflower in a war zone highlights the interconnectedness of our global food systems with the ripples of the conflict spreading through agricultural systems worldwide.
Agriculture and intensification of land use are leading drivers of biodiversity loss. Our reliance on imported food outsources not just our food security but also externalises our impact on global biodiversity.
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Rises in the prices of fuel and fertiliser because of the war in Ukraine will no doubt put huge pressure on agricultural practices here in Ireland. One approach is to heavily subsidise current practices and lock in reliance on volatile fuel and fertiliser markets; an alternative is to invest in the sustainability of pasture and crop systems through rapid conversion to multi-species swards that are far less reliant on fertiliser, development of on-farm animal feed crops and investment in renewable energy for farms.
The benefits of a circular bioeconomy approach to farming where we are in control of our own biodiversity impacts and improvements have never been clearer.
Farmers will need significant support to transition to a more sustainable model – farming systems cannot be changed overnight. But investment now should not lock us into future crises as climate change induced turbulence in world agriculture is likely to continue long after the current conflict is resolved.
Sunflowers are a powerful symbol of hope for the future, as seeds germinate to cover the ground each spring, the flower buds trace the movement of the sun from east to west and the flowers face the rising sun of each new day. We can but hope that they will bloom again.
Yvonne Buckley is an ecologist, Irish Research Council laureate and professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin
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