200,000 Olive Farms in Spain Could Vanish in Next Decade, Report Finds

According to a new study, more than 320,000 acres of traditional olive groves are abandoned and 1.2 million acres more could be also lost, equal to one-fifth of the total land area of all Spanish olive groves.

Jun. 10, 2019
By Costas Vasilopoulos

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A study released by multi­na­tional firm Deoleo warned that 240,000 small olive oil farms in Spain could van­ish over the next 10 years.

The inter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion in the olive oil sec­tor, which inevitably leads to more olive oil pro­duced glob­ally, in con­junc­tion with a rel­a­tive fall in con­sump­tion and the stag­na­tion of prices in the coun­try, makes it hard for small Span­ish pro­duc­ers to retain their posi­tion in the mar­ket.

It is pos­si­ble and nec­es­sary to reverse the sit­u­a­tion, it takes the com­mit­ment of the agents of the sec­tor to main­tain a type of olive grove that has an impor­tant social, eco­nomic and envi­ron­men­tal role.- Juan Vilar, author of the study

The study, enti­tled Salve­mos el buen aceite” or Save the good oil,” focused on the main olive oil pro­duc­ing ter­ri­to­ries of Spain – Andalu­sia, Castilla — La Man­cha, Valèn­cia, Aragón and Cat­alo­nia – and found that more than 320,000 acres of tra­di­tional olive tree farm­ing have already been aban­doned in these areas.

The expla­na­tion for the decline lies in num­bers, with 64 olive oil pro­duc­ing coun­tries in the world today, com­pared to 46 coun­tries fif­teen years ago. A total of 28.7 mil­lion acres of land are cov­ered with olive trees, and every sec­ond there are, on aver­age, 10 olive trees being planted some­where on the planet.

See more: Span­ish Olive Oil Pro­duc­tion

Fur­ther­more, almost 40 per­cent of the total quan­tity of olive oil comes from inten­sive farm­ing, which yields almost 50 per­cent more than tra­di­tional farm­ing at half the cost.

This expan­sion of cul­ti­vated land and olive oil out­put cre­ates an imbal­ance between sup­ply and demand at a global level, with more olive oil being pro­duced than con­sumed.

While over­all global con­sump­tion has increased by 6.4 per­cent dur­ing the last nine years, the study stated, a cut­back has occurred in mature mar­kets such as Spain, Italy and Greece, where con­sumers have reduced their intake of olive oil by 16 per­cent on aver­age trans­lat­ing to 286,000 tons col­lec­tively.

Mean­while, increases in con­sump­tion in other mar­kets, such as Ger­many, France and the United States, have slowed down over the same time period.

In that sense, an esti­mated sur­plus in olive oil pro­duc­tion of one to two mil­lion tons each year will lead to lower prices in most mar­kets, includ­ing Spain, where prices today are below all the other pro­ducer coun­tries world­wide.

Prices of olive oil demon­strate a neg­a­tive out­look in the recent weeks in Spain set­tling at €2.20 ($2.49) per kilo­gram of extra vir­gin, with the agri­cul­tural orga­ni­za­tion COAG warn­ing that these prices are already below the prof­itabil­ity thresh­old.

With the cur­rent trend of loss in con­sump­tion, the small mar­gin for profit and the expan­sion of olive tree cul­ti­va­tion world­wide, tra­di­tional Span­ish olive groves could become unsus­tain­able and lose another 1.2 mil­lion acres within a decade, the study con­cluded, rep­re­sent­ing 20 per­cent of all Span­ish olive groves.

The loss would affect 240,000 small farm­ers with 2.5 to 7.5 acres of land, dri­ving them out of exis­tence, the study warned. Almost 300,000 local fam­i­lies who are one way or another asso­ci­ated with the olive oil sec­tor would be impacted.

The need for pro­duc­ers to yield more olive oil in order to stay com­pet­i­tive poses another threat to the tra­di­tional Span­ish olive oil sec­tor. There is a lot of pres­sure for these smaller pro­duc­ers to switch to fully mech­a­nized, inten­sive cul­ti­va­tion meth­ods of high per­for­mance but low qual­ity, which are not suit­able for small tra­di­tional farms with big, irreg­u­larly planted olive trees.

The sit­u­a­tion mainly affects the native olive vari­eties of Spain, espe­cially the Picual vari­ety, which falls vic­tim to inten­sive olive farm­ing. Inten­sive farms tend to cul­ti­vate other vari­eties, which are selected for their higher out­put and not for their antiox­i­dant prop­er­ties and rich organolep­tic char­ac­ter­is­tics, like Picual is.

Even worse, the envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits tra­di­tional olive orchards offer, such as pre­serv­ing the land from deser­ti­fi­ca­tion and absorb­ing large amounts of car­bon diox­ide, are now gone due to the age and size of the trees, since inten­sive farm­ing mainly uses younger and smaller trees with less foliage and shorter roots.

Juan Vilar, the author of the study and an expert on the olive oil sec­tor of Spain, called for col­lec­tive action to pre­vent fur­ther dam­age.

It is pos­si­ble and nec­es­sary to reverse the sit­u­a­tion, it takes the com­mit­ment of the agents of the sec­tor to main­tain a type of olive grove that has an impor­tant social, eco­nomic and envi­ron­men­tal role, which is typ­i­cally Span­ish and which, due to its unique­ness, pro­vides a huge rich­ness and vari­ety to the offer of olive oil,” he said.

Even­tu­ally, it comes down to prices of olive oil increas­ing in the coun­try to pre­vent the aban­don­ment of tra­di­tional olive orchards in the com­ing years, the study sug­gested.

In the long run, the trans­for­ma­tion of the Span­ish olive grove from tra­di­tional to mod­ern for bet­ter yield in terms of quan­tity could back­fire and apart from the envi­ron­men­tal reper­cus­sions could lead to the dis­ap­pear­ance of Span­ish indige­nous olive vari­eties.


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  1. Fergus Killoran says:

    The con­clu­sions” of this report” are ridicu­lous. Spain’s prob­lem is that far too many of its pro­duc­ers / bot­tlers have com­modi­tised olive oil via inten­sive farm­ing, indif­fer­ent qual­ity and low prices. They have gone a long way to destroy­ing the busi­ness. Only a tiny num­ber of pro­duc­ers have resisted this short term per­spec­tive. Inevitably, the large pro­duc­ers and bot­tlers have pul­verised the prices. The only way to raise mar­gins and develop healthy busi­nesses is through the pur­suit of qual­ity and the seg­men­ta­tion of the mar­ket. Until that hap­pens, it is crazy to imag­ine other ways to raise prices. Lastly, what is wrong with some (many) farm­ers decid­ing to stop grow­ing olives? Is that not a nat­ural con­se­quence of sup­ply and demand. This way, they can devote their assets to other uses.

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