Russia’s war heats up cooking oil prices in global squeeze

ISTANBUL (AP) — For months, Istanbul restaurant Historical Balikca tried to absorb the surging cost of the sunflower oil its cooks use to fry fish, squid and mussels.

But in early April, with oil prices nearly four times higher than they were in 2019, the restaurant finally raised its prices. Now, even some longtime customers look at the menu and walk away.

“We resisted. We said, ‘Let’s wait a bit, maybe the market will improve, maybe (prices) will stabilize. But we saw that there is no improvement,” said Mahsun Aktas, a waiter and cook at the restaurant. “The customer cannot afford it.”

Global cooking oil prices have been rising since the COVID-19 pandemic began for multiple reasons, from poor harvests in South America to virus-related labor shortages and steadily increasing demand from the biofuel industry. The war in Ukraine — which supplies nearly half of the world’s sunflower oil, on top of the 25% from Russia — has interrupted shipments and sent cooking oil prices spiraling.

It is the latest fallout to the global food supply from Russia’s war, and another rising cost pinching households and businesses as inflation soars. The conflict has further fueled already high food and energy costs, hitting the poorest people hardest.

The food supply is particularly at risk as the war has disrupted crucial grain shipments from Ukraine and Russia and worsened a global fertilizer crunch that will mean costlier, less abundant food. The loss of affordable supplies of wheat, barley and other grains raises the prospect of food shortages and political instability in Middle Eastern, African and some Asian countries where millions rely on subsidized bread and cheap noodles.

Vegetable oil prices hit a record high in February, then increased another 23% in March, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Soybean oil, which sold for $765 per metric ton in 2019, was averaging $1,957 per metric ton in March, the World Bank said. Palm oil prices were up 200% and are set to go even higher after Indonesia, one of the world’s top producers, bans cooking oil exports starting Thursday to protect domestic supply.


Some supermarkets in Turkey have imposed limits on the amount of vegetable oil households can purchase after concerns about shortages sparked panic-buying. Some stores in Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom also have set limits. German shoppers are posting photos on social media of empty shelves where sunflower and canola oil usually sit. In a recent tweet, Kenya’s main power company warned that thieves are draining toxic fluid from electrical transformers and reselling it as cooking oil.

“We will just have to boil everything now, the days of the frying pan are gone,” said Glaudina Nyoni, scanning prices in a supermarket in Harare, Zimbabwe, where vegetable oil costs have almost doubled since the outbreak of the war. A 2-liter bottle now costs up to $9.

Emiwati, who runs a food stall in Jakarta, Indonesia, said she needs 24 liters of cooking oil each day. She makes nasi kapau, traditional mixed rice that she serves with dishes like deep-fried spiced beef jerky. Since January, she’s had trouble ensuring that supply, and what she does buy is much more expensive. Profits are down, but she fears losing customers if she raises prices.

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