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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.