“Although no revolutionary product is yet ready for supermarket shelves, executives of these companies are confident. ‘In a few decades, probably 75% of the food we eat will come from genetically engineered crops,’ says Edward T. Shonsey, who runs the U.S. seeds division of Novartis AG, a Swiss pharmaceutical and chemical concern that plans to embark on an agricultural-acquisition spree.”(1)

That was 1998. Two core patents later(2), and free-riding on a highly successful campaign by olive oil producers to inform the world of the health benefits of olive oil, and in particular of oleic acid, Monsanto is poised to launch a soybean oil that will be both cheaper than olive oil and mirror at least some of its major health effects.

Based on Round-Up-Ready soybeans (a fact not likely to be used in its advertising campaigns), this may prove to be the public relations coup of the century for Monsanto, who may at last claim to be producing something that is good for humans.

Of course, the high priests of olive oil and their flocks will not be swayed – they will continue to extol the bitter taste of fine oils regardless. But for the mass markets of new devotees from Patagonia to Beijing, many of whom are drawn to olive oil’s health benefits rather than the taste, and for the already olive-disenfranchised of the Mediterranean region increasingly receptive to other options for healthy fats, Monsanto’s pitch may well have sticking power.

For the extra virgin olive oil industry, this comes at a bad time. Supplies are down due to weather conditions, particularly in Spain, the world’s largest producer, and this means prices are up. The world is still mired in recession and shows no signs of recovering in the near future. This does not bode well for high-end, expensive-to-produce extra virgin oil, which is already being replaced by lower quality olive oils, blends and cheaper alternatives.

As if this were not bad enough, the industry is engaged in destructive infighting, with New World producers intent on bad-mouthing the European and North African oils to win market share at home and in new markets abroad. This is in spite of the fact that the past few years have seen a barrage of new EU laws aimed at quality assurance, and environmental and consumer protection.

This is not to belittle problems with European oils in the past, but with the USITC report on olive oil competition to come out in August (as mentioned in earlier articles – this is never for nothing), and the likely mud to be slung following in the US Farm Bill vs. the new EU Common Agricultural Policy (despite cuts voted through last week), the prospects look sadly lacking for the world extra virgin industry pulling together and recognizing the real danger of cheap soy bean oil dressed up to look healthy.

Where’s the International Olive Council in all of this? The intergovernmental organization is so trapped in old ways of doing business it could not even reach a quorum to pass its own budget, leaving it in a state of paralysis. It sat out a critical Codex meeting and its director, Jean-Louis Barjol, passed up an invitation from the organizers of next month’s New York International Olive Oil Competition to address an audience assembled for the first major olive oil event in the world’s biggest market — a seemingly good place and time to mend fences.

If anyone thinks Monsanto may not be able to pull this off, cast your eyes back to their success last year in convincing Californians (Californians!) they that don’t want to know what’s in their food, and forward to the probable passage next week of what has come to be called the Monsanto Protection Act(3) in the US Congress. Across the pond, the EU (at the level of the Commission as well as the European patent office) seems inexplicably (if you ignore the growing army of lobbyists) favorably disposed towards Monsanto and its ilk as well(4).

It’s not too late. This could be the brief moment in time when a united olive oil industry could work together to confront what may be its biggest rival, which has nothing to do with borders or countries of origin.

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