,* U.S. green energy drive seen boosting demand for vegoils * Key edible oils near record highs on demand, productionissues * Consumers in India, Africa cutting consumption on highprices * Drive towards electric vehicles may cap demand for vegoils By Naveen Thukral and Gavin Maguire SINGAPORE, March 19 (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden'sgreen fuel push using edible oils is helping drive up vegetableoil prices that are already near record highs, hitting keycost-sensitive consumers in India and Africa and stoking globalfood inflation fears. The United Nations' vegetable oils price index has rallied70% since last June to nine-year highs after labour shortages atAsian palm plantations and bad weather in key sunflower,rapeseed and soybean hubs pinched edible oil output and cutinventories to 10-year lows. The run-up in edible oil prices has helped fuel a rise inthe UN's broader food price index to its highest since 2014,stinging consumers in developing countries and posing achallenge to policymakers trying to spur economic growth. A steep recovery in edible oil demand as consumers andbusinesses restocked following COVID-19 lockdowns hasexacerbated the tightness, as has Biden's election win andpromised 'Clean Energy Revolution' that looks set to ignitebiofuel demand. "There's been a new factor which has come after the electionof President Biden that has projected higher demand for soyoil,which is 100% biodiesel," leading edible oils analyst DorabMistry said."Four refineries have already said that they will terminaterefining fossil fuel (and) instead start producing vegetable oilbased fuel." The sharp price climb in all edible oils, which are criticalfor food preparation and in the daily diets of billions ofpeople, is already hurting some consumers. A 20% rise in palm oil prices in Myanmar since a Feb. 1military coup is one of many troubling signs for vulnerablepeople there, the World Food Programme (WFP) said this week. Pricier oils are also stifling demand in India, the topglobal vegetable oil buyer, and are expected to curb imports asconsumers are forced to cut back despite moves to reopen theeconomy from COVID-19 lockdowns. "We were expecting a recovery in demand after the countryopened up, but India's edible oil imports will remain at lastyear's level at 13.2 million tonnes," said Sandeep Bajoria,chief executive officer of Sunvin Group, a vegetable oil broker. "Earlier, 2021 imports were forecast at 14 million tonnesbut higher prices are leading to demand destruction." Malaysian palm oil futures, the price benchmark forthe world's most-traded edible oil, have recently topped 4,000ringgit per tonne for the first time since 2008. Rapeseed oil <RPEO-NLEURO-P1> has added roughly a quarter toits value this year, while Black Sea sunflower oil<SUL-EXWBE-P1> is up almost 30%. Soybean oil has jumpedover 27% in 2021. "There is this age-old argument about food versus fuel butno one dare talk about it as it is all about green energy now,"Mistry, a director at Godrej International, told Reuters. "It will take a long time, and noises from the developingcountries, before people actually try to slow down the rate atwhich green energy is being produced." Food consumers are already cutting back. India's palm oil imports fell 27% in February from a yearearlier to their lowest in nine months, a leading trade bodysaid last week, reflecting a slowdown in domestic demand. "We are also told by people who ship palm oil packed in tinsthat the demand from Africa has slowed down," Mistry added. With U.S. soybean inventories set to fall below 4 milliontonnes this season from over 14 million last year, U.S. soy oilprices may stay strong for months longer, said Mistry. But palm oil production in Asia is expected to climb fromApril onwards, which should help to cool the broader globalvegetable oil market, he added. Further out, the push for electronic vehicles will helplimit the increased use of edible oil for biodiesel, said PhinZiebell, agribusiness economist at National Australia Bank inMelbourne. "Biodiesel is more likely to go into heavy transport, suchas trucks and trains, as well as earth-moving and construction,"he said. REUTERS
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