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Oct 30, 2015 2:01 PM CST
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Sunflower seeds are mostly seen as a tasty snack in China. People usually eat them in their spare time and they are usually seen as symbols of relaxation. When I came to the United States, I thought that I might live a terrible life without any sunflower seeds since I am a big fan of them. However, I discovered that sunflower seeds are used not only as snacks, but they also have wider use such as oil suppliers. Therefore, I am going to explore the production, consumption and the export of sunflowers seeds in the United States while using other countries as references and contrasts.

I. The History of Sunflower Seeds

The sunflower seed is the fruit of the sunflower, which is a crop commonly grown worldwide. It was originated from North America. According to the National Sunflower Association (NSA), the sunflower was “cultivated by American Indians in present-day Arizona and New Mexico about 3000 BC” (NSA: History, n.d.). The American Indian tribes used the sunflower seeds as snacks and meal to mix with other food, as well as the sources of oil. They also used the seeds in non-food ways such as dye for textiles, body paintings and other decorations (NSA: History, n.d.).

The sunflower seeds were brought to European countries at around 1500 with an initial use as ornamental plants. Later on they became very popular cultivated crops in the 18th century and were used to squeeze oil. Among all the European countries, Russia became a large producer of sunflower seeds even until today. By the early 19th century, Russian “farmers were growing over 2 million acres of sunflower” and the seeds were used both in oil and for direct human consumptions (NSA: History, n.d.).

While the sunflower seeds gained their popularity in Europe, they were not widely grown in the United States until the late 19th century. Since the seeds had both high yields and high oil production, they were soon brought into commercial use. Sunflower was “hybridized in the middle seventies providing additional yield and oil enhancement as well as disease resistance” (NSA: History, n.d.).

II. Production and Consumption of Sunflower Seeds

2.1 Production of Sunflower Seeds

Sunflowers are widely grown throughout the world. According to the statistics provided by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), within the time frame from 1993 to 2013, Russia was the biggest producer of sunflower seeds, with an average production of 5,164,203.76 tons per year. Besides Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, Mainland China, and France are also listed on the top 5 producers of sunflower seeds, each of which exceeds 1,500,000 tons in production. Also, the production of sunflower seeds in these countries kept increasing. For example, from the year of 2010 to 2013, the production of sunflower seeds in China increased from 2,298,000 tons to 2,423,241 tons. Ukraine also had an increase in sunflower seeds production from 6,771,500 to 11,050,480 tons within the same period of time (FAOSTAT n.d.).

In contrast, the production of sunflowers in the United States is suffering. According to the Crop Production Annual Summary by USDA (2015), the production of sunflower seeds was actually reduced from 2,359,775,000 pounds in 2012 to 1,663,170,000 pounds in 2014 even though the yield per acre stayed stable (1,484 pounds in 2012 and 1,461 pounds in 2014). Among all fifty states, the production of sunflower seeds mainly focuses on the Midwest, among which North Dakota and South Dakota are two states occupied for more than 80 percent of the whole production.

As Gupta (2014) stated, the reason for this decline is that compared to the United States, people in the Middle East and Mexico are more inclined to sunflower oil. The prices of sunflower oil in these areas were kept lower with the aid of subsidies provided by the government. Therefore, more production of the sunflower seeds has taken place, which resulted in less imported from the United States. According to FAO, from the year of 2003 to 2013, Mexico had an increasing annual production rate of 53.77 percent, which supported the statement above (FAOSTAT n.d.).

2.2 Consumption of Sunflower Seeds

Sunflower seeds are usually consumed in two ways: oil and non-oil. For most of the non-oil seeds, they are consumed as snacks worldwide. In United States, people tend to eat sunflower seeds as a healthy snack since they provide different types of nutrition such as protein, fiber, minerals, vitamin E, phytochemicals, etc., which are all very significant for our daily diets. Other than snacks, people tend to use sunflower seeds as a cooking ingredient in salads and even in baking cakes. The use of sunflower seeds in bird feeds and meals for cows and other animals is also significant. What is more, the consumption of shelled seeds is increasing recently. According to the Economic Research Service (ERS) in the USDA, approximately “10-20 percent of U.S. sunflower production is used in shelled kernels, whole seeds, and nut and fruit mixes containing sunflower seed” (ERS, n.d.). I was also very astonished to find out that the seeds are available in flavors such as barbeque, ranch, hot & spicy, etc. since it is very difficult to imagine sunflower seeds in these flavors.

According to the description of ERS, containing about 35-55 percent oil, the oil-type of sunflower seeds are “selected for specific characteristics such as oil yield, the amount of oleic acid in the oil, and the protein content of the meal” (ERS, n.d.). Basically, there are three types of sunflower oil in the U.S. market: linoleic, high-oleic, and mid-oleic. Linoleic is the original sunflower oil which dominated the market until recently. It is highly polyunsaturated (65 percent) with low saturated fat levels, and is of high amount in Vitamin E (NSA: Linoleic Sunflower Oil, n.d.). Currently the major oil supply is the mid-oleic oil. ERS (n.d.) describes mid-oleic as a type of oil that “has no trans fats, low monounsaturated fat, and a neutral taste”.

As for the processing of the sunflower seed, according to ERS (n.d.), the majority of seeds were crushed in North Dakota and Kansas in order to separate the oil from the seeds. Two major technologies were used during this process. First, a feed expeller can press the oil from the seeds using mechanical pressure. Then the seeds will go through a “solvent extraction process” in which “the remaining meal is washed with a hexane solution to dislodge nearly all the remaining oil” (ERS, n.d.). For the non-oil seeds, some of them are roasted with spices to create different flavors, while some are removed of shells and packed to sell as healthy snacks.

III. Export of Sunflower Seeds in the United States

Attached is a chart from ERS using data from the Foreign Agriculture Service of USDA. From the chart we can see that in the late 1970s and early 1980s the United States had the highest amount of exported sunflower seeds while the oil and meal product were still at a low level. At that time, two-thirds of sunflower seeds production was exported. However, after reaching its peak in around 1980, the exports “declined as global competition for sunflower exports increased (primarily in Argentina), and Europe, the primary importer of sunflower seed, rapidly increased its own production” (ERS, n.d.).

For the sunflower oil exports, it is shown on the chart that before the early 2000s the exports of sunflower oil had an overall trend of increasing. The reason for this steady growth is basically the subsidy programs provided by the government. For example, the Export Enhance Program, which was initiated by USDA in order to subsidize export payments, supported the export of sunflower oil greatly by providing subsidies and payments (ERS, n.d.). However, most of this type of programs like EEP ended in early 2000s, which led to strong competition from other sunflower seed producers such as Russia, Ukraine and European Union.

Also, as I stated above, governments in those countries which import sunflower oil from the United States encourage their own growth and production of sunflower seeds in recent years by offering subsidy programs and direct payments, keeping the price of sunflower oil relatively low. Therefore, the need to import sunflower oil from the United States would be decreased dramatically.

Economic Research Service. (n.d.) Sunflowerseed. Retrieved from
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (n.d.) Faostat. Retrieved from
Gupta, M. K. (2014). Sunflower oil and its applications. Lipid Technology, 26(11-12), 260-263. doi:10.1002/lite.201400068
National Agricultural Statistics Service. (2015). Crop production 2014 summary. Retrieved from http://usda.mannlib.cornell.ed...
National Sunflower Association. (n.d.) Linoleic sunflower oil. Retrieved from
National Sunflower Association. (n.d.) History. Retrieved from
Thumb of 2015-10-30/susanshn/5b384b
Oct 30, 2015 3:51 PM CST
Name: Dillard Haley
Augusta Georgia (Zone 8a)
Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level
Concur, But the bottom line is profit vs cost of production. Farming is a painful way to go broke.
Nov 6, 2015 5:52 PM CST
Name: Natalie
North Central Idaho (Zone 7a)
Celebrating Gardening: 2015 Dog Lover Daylilies Irises Plant Lover: Loves 'em all! Hummingbirder
Frogs and Toads Native Plants and Wildflowers Cottage Gardener Lover of wildlife (Black bear badge) Region: United States of America Xeriscape
Welcome! to All Things Plants @susanshn! Very good article!

Sunflowers are also used as a biofuel.
Nov 7, 2015 9:44 AM CST
Name: Tom
Southern Wisconsin (Zone 5b)
Butterflies Vegetable Grower Keeper of Poultry Irises Keeps Horses Dog Lover
Daylilies Cat Lover Region: Wisconsin Celebrating Gardening: 2015
The Farm across the road from me raised sun flowers this year. I posted these pictures in the farming forum this summer.
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Politicians are like diapers, they need to be changed often, and for the same reason.
Nov 19, 2015 6:05 AM CST
Name: Cynthia (Cindy)
Melvindale, Mi (Zone 5b)
Daylilies Hybridizer Irises Butterflies Charter ATP Member Million Pollinator Garden Challenge
Birds Region: Michigan Vegetable Grower Hummingbirder Heucheras Lover of wildlife (Black bear badge)
I just love looking at a sunflower field. A couple of miles from me Ford Motor Company often plants its spare land with sunflowers. It truly is nice and gives the land a farm feeling in the midst of all the office buildings.
Lighthouse Gardens
Nov 19, 2015 7:13 PM CST
Name: Rick Corey
Everett WA 98204 (Zone 8a)
Sunset Zone 5. Koppen Csb. Eco 2f
Frugal Gardener Garden Procrastinator I helped beta test the first seed swap Plant and/or Seed Trader Seed Starter Region: Pacific Northwest
Photo Contest Winner: 2014 Avid Green Pages Reviewer Garden Ideas: Master Level Garden Sages I was one of the first 300 contributors to the plant database! I helped plan and beta test the plant database.
Thank you, susanshn, for such an informative article!

I bet, if you submitted it to Trish as an article, you would get a bunch of acorns.
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