Olive shortage

The Other Oil Crisis

Olives imago
An increasingly rare sight in Italy.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    As well as raising prices, the olive oil shortage in the world’s second largest producer Italy is likely to increase criminal involvement in the industry.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Olive oil output in Italy has fallen from 464,000 tonnes in 2013 to an expected 302,000 tonnes this year.
    • Italy has more than 750,000 olive farms.
    • Italians alone consume 12 kilograms (26 pounds) of olive oil a year.
  • Audio

    Audio

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For generations, Italian olive growers have encountered brutal crop failures. Stories of ruined businesses, lost livelihoods and severe shortages were common.

Today’s generation of growers in Italy, the world’s second largest producer of olives after Spain, has long been blessed with bountiful harvest after bountiful harvest – at least until now.

In the past year, the output of olive oil has dropped by 35 percent, from 464,000 tons in 2013 to an expected 302,000 tons this year. That’s not even enough to meet Italy’s domestic demand of 12 kilograms (26 pounds) per person.

Some villages in the traditional producing regions of Tuscany and Umbria are barely pressing any oil at all these days. Many towns have cancelled their traditional fall festivals that celebrate the olive harvest.

The “olio extravergine” is in short supply, and prices for Italy’s “green gold” are skyrocketing.

The poor harvests are being caused by a deadly combination of unsual weather and the olive fruit fly. First, the mild winter allowed more fruit fly larvae than usual to survive buried in the soil. Next, a dry June saw olive blossoms wither away on the trees.

The “olio extravergine” is in short supply, and prices for Italy’s “green gold” are skyrocketing.

Then, when humidity rose to tropical levels in July, the olive fruit fly spread like wildfire – and the fruits it lays its eggs in fell from the trees by the ton.

To make matters worse, in Apulia, a region that produces more than a third of Italy’s olive oil, criminal gangs started harvesting entire olive plantations. And in the industry’s logistics centers, “white-collar gangsters” are working on plans to trick customers, police say.

Other countries have also suffered. For example, Spain has struggled with bad weather, too. Only Greece and Tunisia were able to actually harvest more this year than last.

But Italian olive oil sells much better – and brings more profit. That’s why Italy is also the world’s largest importer of olive oil. According to a report on the country’s “agro-mafia” by the Rome-based research institute Eurispes, criminals import, rebottle and rebrand cheap foreign oil.

 

Olive harvest picture alliance
Italy is suffering its worst olive harvest in decades. Source: Picture Alliance

 

This year’s domestic dearth is likely to lead to even higher levels of forgery and adulteration than usual, police say.

Roberto Moncalvo, president of the farmers’ union, predicts that Italy will import twice as much olive oil as it produces this year. “That means two of every three bottles of Italian olive oil actually contain foreign products,” he said.

Authorities hold the olive growers partly responsible. They say they gave plenty of warning to the growers about the risk of olive flies, but the“farmers took it lightly and neglected pest control.”

Agronomist Angela Canale blames the typically Italian, small-scale organization of olive cultivation. Almost two thirds of estates amount to less than 10,000 square meters. This leaves more than 750,000 farms growing 250 million olive trees on an area spanning more than 11,500 square kilometers.

“Many small and part-time farmers have no idea of proper olive cultivation,” Mr. Canale said. “They think they can still do it the way grandpa and grandma used to, and don’t get the difference between gardening and agriculture.”

Only 220 companies produce on an industrial scale, and many of them were bought by Spanish firms last year.

But not all olive farmers are worried.

Pierluigi Taccone, the owner of a large farm in Calabria, the toe of the Italian boot, was quoted as saying that while olive oil prices are high, they are still nothing compared to the costs that farmers bear.

“You could say, for the first time we get a fair price,” he said. “It would be ideal to keep it that way in years of normal production. Our oils deserve that.”


behind the scenes of olive oil production in Italy.

This article first appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: redaktion@tagesspiegel.de

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