On Thursday, February 24, the first day of Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked, unjustified and increasingly brutal war on Ukraine, a local woman in Henychesk went viral when she was filmed furiously confronting a heavily armed Russian soldier in the street .
“What the hell are you doing here?” she asked and insulted him, declaring: “You are occupiers, you are fascists! What the hell are you doing with all those guns on our land?”
She ignored his attempts to soothe her, instead waving a handful of seeds and saying, “Take these seeds and put them in your pockets so at least sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.”
With grim pragmatism she imagined the flowers sprouting from the uniforms of the Russian dead, and found bitter comfort in the inevitable triumph of nature over human barbarism and in the spirit of her people as resilient as the earth.
The sunflower (or “Soniashnyk”) is the national flower of Ukraine and has been grown in the central and eastern steppes since the mid-18th century, cultivated for its seeds, which are eaten as a snack or crushed into oil, an important ingredient in cooking and a vital export product.
Sunflower oil’s popularity in Ukraine has been attributed to the influence of the Orthodox Church, which banned the use of butter and lard in domestic cooking during Lent, but issued no such ban on vegetable-based alternatives.
According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Agricultural Development, Ukraine and Russia together currently produce about 70-80 percent of all the world’s sunflower oil, with the former sowing 6.5 million hectares in 2020-21.
Dnipropetrovsk, Kirovohrad, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia, Nikolaev, Luhansk, Odessa and Poltava are the main growing regions, accounting for 62 percent of this total.
However, with many of these areas now war zones, Ukraine’s sunflower oil production is likely to be seriously disrupted this year as crushing and bottling plants close amid fighting, Black Sea ports remain closed and roads and railways are abandoned prioritizing the mass evacuation of refugees to neighboring states such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova.
The April and May planting season is also likely to be disrupted by the conflict, which will also affect next year’s harvest as limited access to fertilizers further complicates matters.
The EU typically imports up to 200,000 tonnes of Ukrainian sunflower oil a month, according to trade group Fedoil, but several Spanish supermarket chains have already set per-customer limits on the number of bottles shoppers can buy in anticipation of an imminent shortage. which in turn could impact the manufacture of snack foods popular in the West.
“There is a risk to supply and demand for the next campaign when there are tensions and military action in agricultural areas – many roads are blocked, trading companies are not working, farmers cannot plant and can reduce the average acreage if some areas are occupied . ‘ one trader told S&P Global.
But the sunflower will endure because it always does, the plant itself a symbol of optimism for its resilience in the soil, its roots make easy work of hard clay soils, its stem is full of nitrogen, and its face is always tilted toward the sun.
This is why it was embraced by the people of Ukraine, why it has become a symbol of solidarity with their plight around the world, and why sunflowers were planted at the Pervomaysk missile base in 1996 to mark the country’s renunciation of the arsenal of nuclear weapons to celebrate it had inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
One could say that Ukraine’s own blue and yellow flag resembles a clear blue sky towering over a flourishing field of crops, promising prosperity and plenty even in the darkest days of famine and hardship.
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