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Published December 21, 2010, 10:25 AM

Sunflower group stresses crop’s sustainability

Relax, eco-conscious companies and consumers. Sunflowers are sustainable and increasingly easy on the environment.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Relax, eco-conscious companies and consumers. Sunflowers are sustainable and increasingly easy on the environment.

That’s the message of a new brochure, the “Sunflower Sustainability Statement,” released by the National Sunflower Association in Bismarck, N.D.

“The users (of sunflowers) are trying to be as environmentally friendly as possible,” says Larry Kleingartner, the association’s executive director.

The statement — written by association staff — explains some of the sunflower industry’s basic workings and describes how farming practices have changed to make sunflowers more sustainable.

Question of sustainability

Industry members of NSA and end users of sunflowers requested the statement because many consumers and major food retailers are scrutinizing sustainability from raw to finished product, the NSA says.

European interest in the issue particularly is important because Europe is a major market for U.S. sunflowers. For instance, Germany and the United Kingdom account for about two-fifths of U.S. exports of sunflower kernels, or seeds with the hulls removed, according to the NSA website.

Viable crop

Some of the statement’s key points:

- Sunflowers are not a genetically modified plant — and there’s little, if any chance of GMO sunflowers anytime soon.

- Eighty percent of U.S. sunflower acres utilized either no-till or minimum-till practices in 2010. In 1990, virtually no sunflower acres used no-till or minimum-till.

- The amount of active-ingredient herbicide has dropped from about 1.25 pounds per acre in 1996 to about 0.3 pounds in 2010.

- Total fuel used in tillage, weed control and planting has dropped from 1.8 gallons per acre in 1996 to about 0.5 gallons per acre in 2008.

- Sunflowers use more insecticides than many other prominent crops. That’s because sunflowers are native to North America and native insects have evolved over time. But farmers today use far fewer pounds per acre of active-ingredient insecticides, and most insecticides used today are more user- and environmentally friendly than before.

The statement also says sunflowers use relatively little nitrogen, a key fertilizer, and that sunflower plants provide habitat for a number of bird species during the growing season.

There’s information on the transportation and processing of sunflowers as well.

Backed by research

Most of the statistics used in the statement come from research by the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

North Dakota is the nation’s leading producer of sunflowers.

The statement will be updated as more research becomes available and in response to further questions from customers, Kleingartner says.