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What trends offer opportunities on the European market for oilseeds?

Takes about 12 minutes to read

The European oilseeds market offers increasing opportunities for suppliers from developing countries. The market is influenced by a number of trends: increasing interest in health products, convenience and innovation, growing interest in ethnic cuisines, the influence of China and India, and ongoing debates on genetically modified products and sustainability and certification. 


1 . European consumers and the quest for health and convenience

The purchase choices of European consumers are heavily influenced by health and wellness. As such, the demand for oilseeds which are considered healthy (such as sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and linseeds) has increased on the European market in recent years. 

In addition to the focus on health and wellness, the oilseeds market in Europe is also driven by convenience. Changing lifestyles with busier schedules and the increasing number of small households mean that less and less time is spent on preparing food.  

This trend leads to innovative ready-to-eat products, which also follow the health trend. Examples include:  

  • Healthy snacks such as muesli, breakfast and multi-fruit bars containing oilseeds;  

  • Oilseed spreads such as hummus and peanut butter;  

  • Other nut/oilseed mixes (sunflower seeds, cashew nuts, almonds and many others). 

In addition, the use of ‘super oilseeds’ in newly launched products is increasingly used as a marketing strategy for manufacturers and retailers. This marketing strategy combines the different market drivers: health and wellness, convenience and innovation. Two examples are chia seeds and hemp seeds; some products on the European market containing these oilseeds are:  

Tips:

2 . Ethnic foods in mainstream markets

European consumers are increasingly open to consumption of ethnic foods. This drives the popularity of oilseeds as ingredients. This is particularly true for Western European consumers, who are generally more open to trying new ingredients and flavours.  

One example of an oilseed which is often used in ethnic cuisines is sesame seed. Ethnic cuisines which use sesame seeds include East Asian cuisine, where whole sesame seeds can be found in popular dishes like dim sum or sushi.  

Another example is Mediterranean cuisine, in which dishes and spreads such as tahini, halva and hummus are prepared with sesame seeds. Hummus in particular is one of the fastest-growing products in the European food market.  

Tips:

  • Research your target markets in Europe and investigate niche opportunities within the ethnic food market. 
  • Check if your product has suitable characteristics for your target segment. For example, some varieties of sesame seeds are more suitable for tahini than others. 
  • Invest in the marketing of your product, promoting qualities such as exotic characteristics, origin, nutritional profile, sustainability / corporate social responsibility projects and certification. 

3 . From commodity to food ingredient

The changing character of the European market from a ‘commodity’ to a food ingredient sector has changed the dynamics of the oilseed sector. While oilseeds were first mainly used as in the crushing industry in large volumes, oilseeds are increasingly used as an extra value addition to food products.   

On the one hand, European legislation and buyer requirements are becoming stricter, with an increasing emphasis on food safety, traceability and quality. This has made it more and more challenging for suppliers to meet the standards of the European market.  

On the other hand, this change has also meant that oilseed buyers and consumers are prepared to pay higher prices for higher quality products. This comes in sharp contrast to the business practices in commodity markets, where products are bought at the lowest price and buyer-supplier relationships may only last for the harvest season. 

Tips:

  • Make sure you meet the European legislative requirements, which is the minimum expected by your (potential) buyer. You can apply a basic Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system, but if you aim to supply food manufacturers more directly it is necessary to have a certified food safety management system recognised by the Global Food Safety Initiative.  
  • Visit the website of the Global Food Safety Initiative for more information about certified food safety management systems.  
  • See our study on European buyer requirements for oilseeds and European buyer requirements for vegetable oils for more information about legal and additional requirements for your product.  
  • Invest in the relationship with your buyer. Be realistic about your supplies (in terms of quality, volumes and prompt delivery to buyers) and continuously aim to improve these aspects.  
  • Always discuss delays or delivery problems with your buyer at the earliest opportunity. This will reduce risk both for you and your client, and will create trust in the long run. 

4 . European buyers are looking to new developing countries for their supplies

The European market for oilseeds is growing and offers interesting opportunities for suppliers in developing countries. Between 2011 and 2015, there was steady growth in European imports of oilseeds in terms of volume. Total imports recorded an average annual growth of around +5% for selected oilseeds. European imports of these oilseeds reached 5.4 million tonnes (€ 4.1 billion) in 2015.  

Figure 1: Imports of oilseeds in Europe, in 1,000 tonnes, 2011-2015 

Developing countries account for a significant share of European imports of oilseeds.  

For sesame seeds, more than 80% of imports in 2015 were sourced directly from developing countries, mainly from India and Nigeria. High percentages of supplies coming directly from developing countries are also found in European imports of groundnuts (62%), mainly from Argentina and China.  

Smaller shares are reported for oilseeds such as sunflowers seeds (9% of total imports) and linseeds (25%), which are also produced in Europe. In 2015, the main suppliers to Europe from developing countries for the following oilseeds (in terms of volume) were: 

Sesame seeds: 

  • India: 47% 

  • Nigeria: 17% 

  • Sudan: 10% 

Linseeds: 

  • Kazakhstan: 92% 

  • Ukraine: 4% 

  • India: 2% 

Groundnuts: 

  • Argentina: 68% 

  • China: 13% 

  • Brazil: 8% 

Sunflower seeds: 

  • Moldova: 63% 

  • Ukraine: 16% 

  • China: 6% 

  • Argentina: 5% 

Europe will continue importing oilseeds from developing countries, but the source of these imports is changing. China and India are playing a large role in this shift. These countries’ increasing populations have driven their consumption of oilseeds upward.  

At the same time, production in these countries is declining, which is gradually turning them into net importers instead of net exporters.  

This development is visible in Europe’s import figures. For example, Chinese supplies of groundnuts to Europe decreased at an annual average rate of -10% in volume between 2011 and 2015. Indian supplies decreased at -28% (note that this decrease can also be partly attributed to quality issues in Indian supplies). 

As a result, European buyers are investing in new sourcing options and are now focusing their attention on Africa. For example, between 2011 and 2015 Nigeria’s supply of sesame seeds to Europe increased significantly at an annual rate of +63% in volume. Sudan’s supplies increased at an annual rate of +24% in volume. Ethiopian supplies also increased, at an annual rate of +4% in the same period. 

This shift gives rise to opportunities for other developing country suppliers to fill the increasing gaps in demand. 

Tips:

  • Compile your own trade statistics and analyse your results using databases such as ITC Trade Map and the European Export Helpdesk: My Export. The trade statistics for oilseeds can be found under Chapter 12 of the Harmonised System (HS) Code. 
  • See our studies with tips for doing business and how to find buyers for practical tips and tools regarding the European oilseeds market. 
  • Keep an eye on emerging markets outside of Europe. Countries such as China and India also offer plenty of opportunities for exporters of oilseeds. 
  • Develop a market information system for your company in order to support decision-making. Websites you can use for information about the agricultural and oilseeds market are Public Ledger, Index Mundi and Oil World

5 . European ban on genetically modified products

It is impossible for most exporters of genetically modified oilseeds to access the European market, due to a zero-tolerance policy for imports of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This can even be the case for GMOs which are considered to be safe by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).  

At this moment, the only genetically modified oilseeds available on the European market are soybeans and rapeseed.  

Public concerns in Europe about genetically modified products have also made the food industry hesitant to use GMOs in food products. As a result, many European food processing companies have switched from rapeseed or soybeans to other oilseeds.  

At the same time, there are market opportunities for products which can be certified as non-GMO in sectors such as linseeds, where GMOs are a significant issue. 

Tips:

  • Do not export banned or highly politicised products to the European market, such as genetically modified oilseeds. Market opportunities therein are extremely limited.  
  • Read more about the regulatory framework for GMOs in Europe on the website of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). 

6 . Increasing influence of retailers

The increasing influence of retailers at earlier stages of the supply chain is causing significant changes in the food sector and in ingredients like oilseeds. Retailers are generally shortening their chains and working with a limited number of preferred suppliers. A tighter control over the chain allows for better traceability, food safety and improvements along the chain. 

The influence of retailers has practical implications, such as: 

  • More cases of contract farming, for greater control of production and distribution systems. 

  • Adoption of industry standards like British Retail Consortium (BRC) and/or their own codes of conduct, which is raising standards for all producers/exporters. 

  • Growth in producer cooperatives, since small producers are often unable to individually supply sufficient volumes directly to retailers. 

Tips:

  • Emphasise the strengths of your company in terms of certificates.
  • Consult your (potential) buyers regarding which certificates are relevant for them or for your specific target market. Certificates can be related to quality management (BRC, ISO 22000, IFS etc.) or ecological/social aspects (e.g. organic, fair trade).
  • In terms of social responsibility, certificates such as the Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) and the Occupational Health & Safety Advisory Services (OHSAS) should also be displayed clearly.
  • Other sustainability certificates or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives should also be highlighted. See our study on buyer requirements for oilseeds for more information on standards and certification schemes.
  • Invest in traceability systems. With the increasing focus on traceable value chains, buyers expect you to (at least) know and document your buyers and suppliers. In addition, be aware of which products are used during your production process and label final products for traceability in case of a food safety problem.

7 . The changing role of middlemen

At the same time as retailers are expanding their influence along supply chains, traders in developing countries and in Europe are losing ground as middlemen in the oilseed sector.

In turn, they are expanding their role as supply chain / risk managers to their final customers. These services include quality management (monitoring included), logistics, procurement, supplier audits and financial management.

The changing role of importers follows a general trend towards stricter buyer requirements in terms of food safety, traceability, social accountability and certification schemes.

The adoption of such requirements is part of overall efforts by food manufacturers and retailers to address economic, environmental and social risks along the value chain for food ingredients. Food manufacturers and retailers are increasingly subject to consumer scrutiny.

This development brings buyers closer to suppliers. Traders are increasingly dependent on solid and long-term relationships with suppliers. It is one of the effects of the move of the oilseeds sector from ‘commodity to food ingredient’ (see above).

Tips:

  • Supply chain managers and traders expect to receive thorough information from (potential) suppliers. Exporters have to provide appropriate and complete documentation of their product properties, with a focus on:
  • Product description and code
  • Origin
  • Certificate(s) (if applicable)
  • Production: ingredients, additives, process
  • Specific properties: smell, colour, taste, appearance, seed size
  • Packing: net content, kind of packaging, size, layers
  • Shelf life
  • Nutritional values
  • Analytical properties
  • Microbiological properties
  • Allergy list
  • Make sure you provide appropriate and complete documentation of your product properties. You can find good examples of product specification sheets on the websites of the following companies: Unsoy (United Kingdom) for linseeds and sunflower seeds, Hempoilcan (Canada) for hemp seeds and DO-IT (Netherlands) for poppy seeds and sesame seeds.
  • See our study on buyer requirements for oilseeds for more information about documentation.
  • Present your company’s certificates for quality management, social responsibility and ecological aspects as described above, under the tip: ‘The increasing influence of retailers’.
  • See our study for more practical information on the channels you can use to access the European oilseeds market.

8 . Sustainability and (organic) certification in Europe

There is a growing concern among European consumers about the environment, food safety and nutrition. In addition, consumers are increasingly aware of production methods and income distribution in ingredient-producing regions. These developments have led to an increase in certification schemes, and to a number of sustainability labels on the European market.

The developments on the European market for organic products provide part of the picture regarding sustainability and certification:

  • In 2014, the organic market in Europe grew by 7.6%, continuing its upward trend. Demand for organic oilseeds has followed this upward trend. More recent figures in countries like Sweden, where the organic food market grew by 40% in 2015, point toward growth even in well-developed markets.
  • The total European market reached € 26.1 billion in retail sales. The largest national markets are Germany (30% of the European market), France (18%) and the United Kingdom (9%) (FiBL, 2016).
  • For oilseeds, the growth of the organic market is most apparent in specific product applications such as healthy snacks, spreads (e.g. peanut butter and tahini), bakery items etc. This is often due to constraints in the supply of certified products rather than any specific characteristic of these products.
  • In addition to being associated with environmental sustainability, organic certification also addresses a general consumer concern related to pesticide residues in oilseeds and the quest for healthy foods.

Regarding certification for social responsibility, the European market remains small for Fair Trade certified oilseeds. The FLO minimum price and premium database lists the following selected oilseeds: groundnuts (peanuts), sesame seeds and soybeans. However, exact figures regarding the market size of these certified oilseeds are not available. In addition to Fairtrade International, other important fair trade schemes in Europe are Fair for Life and Ecocert Fair Trade.

The rapid growth of certification schemes on the European market has led to an overload of labels and consumer confusion. The industry is gradually adapting to this reality, and a new development is taking place: the emergence of validation as a replacement to certification. This opens the door for integrated auditing and verification tools such as the Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA).

Tips:

  • Before engaging in a certification programme, make sure to assess whether this label has sufficient demand in your target market and whether it will be cost-beneficial for your product. This must be done in consultation with your (potential) buyer and network.
  • See our study on buyer requirements for the European oilseeds market for more information.
  • Develop an Identity Preservation (IP) system for your products by documenting their identity and segregating certified from non-certified batches. Refer to the website of HACCP Mentor for more information on how to control identity preserved foods.
  • Make sure that your (prospective) organic certification is harmonised with European legislation, otherwise your product will not be recognised as organic in the European market.
  • Invest in the marketing of your product, promoting sustainability, corporate social responsibility projects and certification.
  • Consult the following sources to investigate niche markets in Europe: FiBL, Organic Europe, Fairtrade Labelling Organisations, Fair for Life, Ecocert Fair Trade and BioFach.