UPDATE 2-France's Avril to expand sunflower crushing to cut import reliance

* Avril plans to raise sunflower oil, meal output

* Seeks to cut reliance on imports, mainly from Black Sea

* French farmers seen expanding sunflower plantings by 30%

* Avril posts strong 2021 results, helped by rise in prices (Adds quote, details)

PARIS, April 14 (Reuters) - French oilseed group Avril said on Thursday it plans to build additional sunflower seed crushing capacity to cut its reliance on imports, as the war in Ukraine reduced shipments of sunflower oil and meal from the European Union’s main suppliers.

Russia and Ukraine together account for about 80% of global exports of sunflower oil.

The decision to boost production had been taken before tensions in the Black Sea region mounted but plans were accelerated recently, Avril Chief Executive Jean-Philippe Puig said.

Created by French oilseed and protein crop growers, Avril is France’s largest biodiesel and animal nutrition maker and a leader in cooking oil and plant-based chemical products.

The group aims to crush 1.1 million tonnes of sunflower per year within two years, from about 700,000 tonnes currently. By then French farmers are expected to have raised the area sown with the yellow oilseed by 30% from 2021 to 900,000 hectares.

“After that France will not be far from being balanced in sunflower oil,” Puig said.

Compared to maize, which is sown at around the same point in spring, sunflower seeds use less water and less fertilizer - of which the price has rocketed in the past year - and has lower drying costs, Avril Chairman Arnaud Rousseau said.

Climate change has also allowed the crop to be grown further north, attracting more farmers, he added.

Meanwhile the group is confident it will be able to supply all its clients with sunflower-based cooking oil as it sources the oilseed entirely in France.

Avril reported a 155% rise in net profit in 2021 to 150 million euros ($163.3 million), helped by capital gains, and a 46% rise in full-year earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) to 356 million euros.

The group’s sales grew 19% to 6.9 billion euros last year, with about 90% of the rise due to an increase in commodities prices. (Reporting by Sybille de La Hamaide; Editing by Jason Neely and Jan Harvey)