Time for Greek Olive Oil to ‘Solve for X’

Opinion & Commentary

By Costas Vasilopoulos, on February 18, 2013

Google’s approach to novel ideas and pioneering thinking is called ‘Solve for X’. The whole concept is that a big problem, no matter its nature, requires a radical solution that can become feasible by using the most state-of-the-art technology available. As Astro Teller comments in a Wired magazine article, “Google X Head on Moonshots: 10X Easier than 10 Percent,” thinking about solving a global problem is not only appropriate for big companies and powerful organizations, but everyone can give it a shot if he can cudgel his brains and think out of the ordinary to come up with the solution. And, contrary to common belief, trying to improve by 10 times instead of only 10 percent is usually easier. This so-called ‘moonshot thinking’ is the very opposite of incremental thinking; instead of slowly carving your way to the solution, focus on the big things and go directly there.

When it comes to olive oil and given today’s special circumstances, the parallelism is obvious: if the olive oil farmers and producers in Greece are able to overcome the unfavorable situation, then they have to pursue and sustain a production that will return a revenue big enough to keep them going. But if they do everything by the book, then the mission is too hard to be accomplished. This means that they must be flexible and open-minded, and that they should look ahead to find an overall solution to their problem no matter their size and power in the olive oil industry. In other words, they should do a moonshot thinking.

Matters that go on for ages and tantalize the industry can be put on a moonshot track and become obsolete. For example, instead of discarding the liquid residue coming out from the oil mills, a practice that sometimes makes the oil mill owners answerable to public authorities because of pollution, a different path can be taken to purify it and turn it to water suitable for irrigation. The technology exists but it is very expensive for a single mill owner to buy and use the necessary equipment, so the producers could come up with a cost-effective solution, maybe by creating a waste processing plant serving many olive oil mills.

Every summer the debate goes on whether the pesticides for the olive fruit fly were effective or not and if the fresh olive oil will be good or not, since the fly has a significant impact on its quality. But if the producers focus on the problem and try not to improve things just a bit but instead eliminate the whole problem, they will see that genetics just might be the place they haven’t searched so far to find the answer to their problem. This approach needs to be clarified at a European level, but remember that trying to make things ten times better could prove easier than aiming at a mere ten percent of improvement.

Exports of Greek olive oil are anemic and the world market is dominated by Italian and Spanish oils. Some more tons of olive oil going to Germany, Russia or China are good for the exporting company, but they are not that important compared to an holistic attempt to establish the Greek olive oil quality in consumers’ minds and branding it worldwide.

Olive oil farmers and producers comprise a sensitive part of the Greek agricultural caste and they are a rather large cog in a much larger wheel. Simply put, they are too important to fail and incorporating advanced thinking or “solving for X” can be all it takes to survive and even prosper.

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This article was last updated November 23, 2014 - 3:32 PM (GMT-5)

  • Aulunthe

    Right, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have had such a splendid track record with food crops, why don’t we now genetically engineer insects to go along with them? Let’s move forward and bring olive culture out of its primitive past and into the bright, technocratic, gene-spliced future!

    It’s puzzling that in other articles, this author has emphasized the huge number of other factors challenging the Greek olive oil industry, in particular the devastated economy but also the flooding of orchards, drought, hailstones, uneven urban/rural development, theft, poverty, the lack of knowledge as city dwellers return to the village, etc. But somehow in this article all these other factors pale in significance; the single thing that will save Greek farmers is … the genetically engineered olive fly.

    We can all appreciate that the patent holder Oxitec has told us that there would be no effect on the environment as the modified flies will eventually die out. That may turn out to be so. And in that case, I can certainly see that on an important level this would be a very welcome solution to a problem that has been such a plague to olive growers worldwide.

    Yet a study by GeneWatch UK notes that “Regulatory decisions on GM insects in Europe and around the world are being biased by corporate interests as the UK biotech company Oxitec has infiltrated decision-making processes around the world. The company has close links to the multinational pesticide and seed company, Syngenta. Oxitec has already made large-scale open releases of GM mosquitoes in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia and Brazil and is developing GM agricultural pests, jointly with Syngenta.”

    For two decades the biotech industry has posed as a friend of farmers, but in the long run whose interests is it really serving?

    So before we walk into this Brave New Future, there are a few things that I simply don’t know the answer to, and perhaps thinking about them might guide us in addressing this urgent problem. Outside of hilly areas where the olive fly is not so much of a problem, are there growers that grow organically and succeed? If so, how do they do it? Have Greek and other olive farmers in similar growing regions utilized these techniques? If so, and they didn’t work, why not?

    And maybe even more importantly: how did olive farmers deal with the fruit fly between, say, 4,000 BC and the post-World War II years when synthetic pesticides came into common use?

    The olive fly is a devastating problem for growers and no one would willingly want to take away any of the tools beleaguered farmers have to combat it. Yet at a time when our nearly 20-year experiment with GMOs is being challenged by so many knowledgeable people worldwide, and not a week goes by without a new study informing us that despite the claims of Monsanto GMO crops has actually have INCREASED pesticide use overall and do NOT increase yields, don’t we owe it to ourselves to make sure we’ve tried all possible alternatives before we introduce a gene-spliced fly into our orchards? Perhaps we have; I am a consumer and layperson uninvolved with the industry and confess total ignorance on this subject.

    At the end of the day, I am not as convinced as the writer that letting loose a genetically engineered insect into the world is such a moonshot, such a radical and firm break with old ways of thinking. On too many levels it’s just the same-old same-old.

  • http://www.facebook.com/TradingMedia Athan Gadanidis

    When I first started reading this article I became excited thinking the author was about to describe the most obvious solution and affirm that our genetics just might be the place they haven’t searched so far to find the answer to their problem.

    “But if the producers focus on the problem and try not to improve things just a bit but instead eliminate the whole problem, they will see that genetics just might be the place they haven’t searched so far to find the answer to their problem.” wrote Costas Vasilopoulos

    By “genetics” I thought he was going to launch into a more substantial overview of Greece, and the olive tree and our Hellenic roots. Unfortunately what I realized is this more of a polemic for the use of GMOs and the olive fruit fly. This is not grand thinking or great 10X thinking in my mind. This is the same old tired thinking that got us where we are today. Patch work solutions and a war with nature instead of a true visionary solution that could solve the problems of the Greek olive farmers based on ancient knowledge. The other commenter Aulunthe brought this into a sharp focus. This is not “Solve for X” solution, this is more of a sales pitch and a promotion of GMO olive fruit flies.

    By eliminating the fruit fly does not in any way solve the problem the Italians and Spanish companies have so adeptly conquered. The Spanish and more so the Italians are great marketers. Our real problem is lack of comprehensive and visionary Marketing and enthusiastic government support. Promoting the superiority of Greek olive oil by using the latest scientific research, and becoming more visible by adeptly using the latest marketing methods and engaging the consumers by reminding them
    of our genetic roots of our Ancient Hellenic knowledge. Today, this ancient knowledge is more relevant than ever. “Let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food”
    Hippocrates uttered these words 2,500 years ago.

    The popularity of “health food” in modern times has grown exactly because of the abuses that modern food “science”, with their “processed’ and “vitamin” fortified foods have wreaked havoc on our health and well-being. The world is
    aching for a holistic vision and not more science intervention against nature.

    The 10X thinking solution is to embrace our leading role in
    the “food as medicine” movement and aggressively promote this revival of the Hellenistic view of food as medicine and let go of the small minded “scientific” patchwork solutions. I have outlined this type of vision in an article and an interview
    with Dr. Magiatis on my website. http://bestoliveoil.ca/in-search-of-the-best-olive-oil/

    I believe we are at the threshold of a Hellenic revival not
    only in food but also in thought and in action. Products from Greece should be branded and certified Hellenic and this the type of 10X thinking that could revive not only the olive oil industry but our Hellenic culture and “genetic” legacy
    and bring about rapid and a holistic transformation of our self-image and our image abroad! We are the genetic solution! This is the solution I am promoting.

    PS I was in Greece for the olive harvest in November 2012.
    There was no fruit fly problem. None at all this year and we had the best lowest acidity olive oil ever. The growers as usual had to sell it off at the lowest prices to the Italians and Spanish.