Are Olives Next in the GMO Fight?

More than a year has passed, but tempers are still high in California over the issue of genetically modified foods (GMOs). Last November, voters in the state were given a chance to decide if companies should be forced to label any products they sell that contain genetically modified ingredients. Early polling numbers indicated that the majority of Californians supported mandated GMO labeling, but a well-financed campaign in opposition to the law made significant inroads and the bill narrowly lost, 51 to 49 percent. Nationally, this ballot question shed light for the first time for many on GMOs, and raises the question, have olives, and olive oil been involved in genetic modification efforts?

The most prominent case of genetic modification in the olive took place in Italy, and began in 1982. Researchers at the University of Tuscia, about an hour North of Rome, sought new strains of olive trees that could resist fungal and bacterial infections, thereby requiring less pesticides to remain healthy. Before any research findings were reported, this project came to an abrupt end in the Summer of 2012 when, under pressure from anti-GMO organizations, the university was ordered to destroy the trees by the Italian government in order to comply with a 2002 law banning all field research on genetically engineered plants.

No such ban exists in the United States, but it seems the olive has so far escaped the attention of American plant scientists that have modified vegetables ranging from the tomato to the soybean to corn. According to Liliana Scarafia, principal researcher at AgBiolab, an independent agricultural laboratory that performs olive oil analysis in Durham, California, there has been little genetic engineering in the olive to date. “There’s no work in GMOs on olives.” she said. “I don’t see the interest, and I don’t see the benefits.” Patricia Darragh, the Executive Director of the California Olive Oil Council reiterated, “to our knowledge there is no GMO olive oil produced in the State of California.”

Of course, olive trees are selected by growers for specific qualities that develop naturally over time, such as strains of trees that can grow in higher density in a given amount of space, and the ease with which the olives can be harvested by a machine. Part of the reason olives may have avoided bioengineering is that they are not grown on the industrial scale that other oil producing plants are. “There is a great diversity of cultivars, richness of germplasm, and there may not be a push for commercial farming, or monocultivar farming,” Scarafia added.

This is not to say that U.S. olive oil farms and producers have stayed out of the GMO conversation. California Olive Ranch, the country’s largest producers of extra virgin olive oil, took an active role in supporting the proposed GMO labelling legislation, endorsing the “Yes On 37” coalition that was in favor of labeling, and making a donation to the advocacy group leading up to the November, 2012 ballot question. Mike Forbes, the director of sales and marketing at California Olive Ranch outlined why his company felt so strongly about GMOs. “If you think about our brand, it’s about transparency, we have a harvest date right on the back of our bottle, and we’re strong believers that you should know what’s in the food you buy.”

Ironically, some in the industry believe that greater transparency and awareness of genetically modified foods will be a boon for the olive oil business. The logic goes that as consumers start to realize that many of the vegetable and cooking oils they use contain genetically modified ingredients (such as soybean or cottonseed oil), they will seek out non-GMO alternatives, primarily olive oil. These non-olive vegetable oils may also be the way GMO products make their way into any olive oil batch; because olive oil is sometimes mixed with other oils, those extra ingredients may be sourced back to a genetically modified crop.

Olive itself is not the only target of genetic modification in the industry. In September of last year, Olive Oil Times reported that European scientists are beginning trials of genetically modified olive flies, spearheaded by the company Oxitec, in the hopes that they can engineer a species that could systematically reduce the fly population and its effects on olive production. It remains to be seen if these flies will succeed in reducing the deleterious effects of the olive industry in the near future, but it is very likely to remain the primary site of bioengineering as far as olives are concerned. For now.

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This article was last updated January 7, 2014 - 3:46 PM (GMT-5)

  • Robin Jones

    Its simple ; Just SAY NO to GM

  • John Hilliard

    Biotech foods have dramatically reduced greenhouse gases by reducing tillage. Being afraid of biotech is as silly as being afraid of computers. And it’s based on ignorance: every food we buy or grow ourselves have been massively modified by humans for hundreds or thousands of years. A caveman would find our food freakish, but also enjoyable, considering that all our fruits are clones and most fruits and vegetables (like strawberries circa 1750) were invented. Genetic modified foods have been consumed for the last 17 years and not one person has been harmed while millions of farmers have reduced pesticide use and increased biodiversity and reduced fungi in food compared to organic crops. In fact, many organic crops are based on carcinogenic breeding or radiation breeding, which really scramples genes. See the website: Genetic Literacy Project. Be educated in biotech, it’s part of saving the planet from Global Warming.

    • getyastraight

      Your argumentation is, in fact, based on ignorance and a blind faith in propaganda.
      Reduced pesticide use – Maybe you don’t count glyphosate as a pesticide?
      Organic crops – You get them directly from the trees, unlike your GMO seeds grown in the lab.
      Global Warming – The problem lies in meat and fossil fuels.

      • John Hilliard

        Glyphosate is safer for the environment than many of the pesticides used by organic farmers.

      • John Hilliard

        GM has been described as the agricultural technology with the most rapid rate of adoption in history.

        World has major problems delivering food security from
        1. population growth,
        2. climate change and
        3. economic and social instability .

        Biotech important role in the Intensification of sustainable farming to improving efficiency in production and avoiding further loss of biodiversity.

        • reginabee

          Wrong John. Biotech has no role in food security , only security for the biotech industry stockholders as they continue to relentlessly deregulate these products and allow the release of genetic contamination in our world.
          So far the promises made by the industry, less pesticides, herbicides, larger yields, are proven to be myths. More toxic herbicides and pesticides have been deregulated to use with gm seed because weeds and pests have developed immunities to glyphosate, the main ingredient in their flagship product, Roundup. Stop spreading lies and propaganda for this industry, which is causing loss of biodivesity, natural pollinators such as butterflies and honeybees are dying and it due to Monsanto and company and their toxic notion of agriculture.

          • John Hilliard

            Glyphosate is safer than most organic pesticides – see the Environmental Impact Quotients developed by Cornell University to compare how damaging organic pesticides can be. Glyphosate EIQ is 15.3 whereas organic sulfur is 45. When I was an organic farmer I had to wait 24 hours after applying organic pesticides before I could re-enter my fields. With the new non-organic pesticides available I can re-enter my fields in 4 to 8 hours after application. Please update your knowledge about farming. Things have changed.

          • reginabee

            Glyphosate is highly toxic to honeybees and butterflies and other natural pollinators. A field study by beekeepers and naturalist Terrence Ingram has proven high toxicity to eagles as well. Glyphosate is not biodegradable and has shown up in blood samples taken from pregnant women and even shown up in breast milk. I don’t know what kind of chemicals you used when you were farming organically, but chances are they were not the right ones. I know many farmers who use no chemicals in their organic farming practices and have excellent results. Perhaps you need to find a different method. I respect all farmers as this is a very difficult field but the most important one that our society relies on. That Monsanto wants to keep farmers under their thumb by having them use highly toxic chemicals that they produce , along with their highly questionable “genetically engineered seed” and charging a premium price for all these products, seems wrong to me. And suing neighboring farmers that do not use ge seed? And not allowing labeling of ge grown products? Hmmm. I will pass as many other nations are now doing by banning ge from their food supplies. The US is beholden to these biotech companies which have a stronghold in our government and operate the “revolving door” which allows them free reign to deregulate their products. Very wrong.

          • John Hilliard

            If your “organic” farmer is telling you they don’t use chemical pesticides, your organic farmer is lying. Pyganic, which is a frequently used organic pesticide, is a bee killer. Another organic pesticide, Pyrethrum, contact kills just about everything. Organic pesticides like sulfur and copper sulfate are both synthetic and are chemicals and have to be applied frequently and have higher EIQs than non organic products. Organic farming needs updating, it is not earth friendly as it could be. It’s whole premise is based on “natural” is good, synthetic is bad. It’s invalid. And not even followed

  • reginabee

    Agreed Robin. Genetically engineering our food is not a good way to grow our food. We should continue using organic techniques that enrich the soil and the general crop environment so that pests and weeds are controlled naturally.

    • John Hilliard

      You are obviously not farmers. Pests and weeds are a threat to the survival of billions of people. A billion people are hungry, 140 million children are stunted physically and mentally. Citrus is being wiped out by citrus greening, our bananas are dying of fusarium wilt, coffee rust is threatening that crop, global warming is destabilizing our food supply, we need draught resistant seeds, flood resistant seeds, fungi resistant seeds- these foods and others will be genetically modified to save the human race…or starvation over vast parts of the planet will prevail.

  • reginabee

    Organic certifiers employ independent third party inspectors and an audit trail system to verify that certified organic farmers are in compliance with public organic standards. The organic community is concerned about the effects of persistence. thus not only are the vast majority of synthetic inputs not allowed but persistent ‘natural’ materials – such as aresenic and tobacco are prohibited in organic production. The gentleman is guilty of gross generalizations. I know some organic farmers who use no purchased pest control inputs. How about a disclosure of financial conflict of interest and maybe the public will learn of the real motivations.