Can China Become a Major Olive Oil Producer?

China's growing demand is helping move forward domestic production.

Farmland in the Jinsha River Valley, China
Jul. 16, 2018
By Rosa Gonzalez-Lamas
Farmland in the Jinsha River Valley, China

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China’s grow­ing demand for olive oil is accel­er­at­ing the devel­op­ment of a domes­tic olive oil indus­try at a pace that appears to start rais­ing alarm among tra­di­tional olive oil pro­duc­ers.

In 2013, Span­ish daily El Mundo pre­dicted that it would take China a cou­ple of years to move from 39 mil­lion olive trees to 59 mil­lion, match­ing the area of planted olive orchards in Jaén, where most of Spain’s olive groves are. This month, Span­ish finan­cial news­pa­per El Econ­o­mista con­firmed this fig­ure had been reached.

Healthy eat­ing habits have become increas­ingly impor­tant for Chi­nese con­sumers mak­ing olive oil a highly appre­ci­ated food. Addi­tion­ally, travel to coun­tries as Spain or Italy has intro­duced them to this prod­uct with a great mar­ket poten­tial con­sid­er­ing the growth of China’s mid­dle-class urban pop­u­la­tion.

To meet grow­ing con­sumer demands the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment imple­mented an aggres­sive national strat­egy to boost its domes­tic olive oil indus­try, launch­ing a plan for the devel­op­ment of olive trees. Olive cul­ti­va­tion is also meant to improve the liv­ing con­di­tions of local farm­ers, pre­vent­ing their migra­tion within the coun­try and min­i­miz­ing depop­u­la­tion.

© Olive Oil Times | Data source: Inter­na­tional Olive Coun­cil

Large-scale olive grow­ing in China began in the 1960s and went through addi­tional phases which, accord­ing to the Inter­na­tional Olive Coun­cil, increased trees from 70,000 in 1973 to 23 mil­lion in 1980. In 1979, more plants were intro­duced, includ­ing Euro­pean vari­eties, which were dis­trib­uted for graft­ing and regional test­ing in sev­eral provinces, a crop that helped advance a Chi­nese olive oil indus­try that began to thrive at the begin­ning of the mil­len­nium.


Chi­nese planted many olive vari­eties, all known and respected. The most impor­tant were Picual and Arbe­quina, from Spain; Lic­cino, Fran­toio, Coratina and Ascolana Ten­era from Italy; and Koroneiki, from Greece,” said San­ti­ago Botas, an olive oil expert from Spain.

Botas reported that stud­ies con­ducted by the Moun­tain Haz­ards and Envi­ron­ment Insti­tute revealed that regions with the great­est poten­tial for olive tree cul­ti­va­tion were the Bai­long River Val­ley, in South­ern Gansu, and the Jin­sha River Val­ley, in the bor­der of Yun­nan and Sichuan.

Whereas planted areas are quickly expand­ing, the most recent plant­i­ngs will need time to mature and become fully pro­duc­tive for qual­ity oils on a large-scale pro­duc­tion. Plu­viom­e­try is a major dif­fer­ence between China and the Mediter­ranean, as it not only rains more in China, but it is also dur­ing sum­mer when it rains the most.

Longnan, Guansu Province

These dif­fer­ences, along with higher Ph soils in China, may cause prob­lems in the fruits, leaves, roots, and the yields because of the impact heavy sum­mer rains might have on flow­er­ing. This means that China will still need to import olive oils for a while to meet con­sumer demands. Mid- to long-term, though, China’s large ter­ri­tory, very cheap labor costs, and sci­en­tific approach may con­sti­tute com­pet­i­tive advan­tages to advance plan­ta­tions and pro­duc­tion.

China’s olive oil indus­try is still incip­i­ent, but accord­ing to Botas, there are sig­nals of a grow­ing inter­est to pro­duce extra vir­gin olive oils with a good sen­so­r­ial qual­ity. Towards this end, some com­pa­nies have incor­po­rated inter­na­tional con­sul­tants to help improve their pro­duc­tion. Oth­ers have even vis­ited coun­tries as Spain to learn about the busi­ness.

Two signs of the progress made by Chi­nese olive oils are awards in inter­na­tional oil com­pe­ti­tions. In 2017 a robust olive oil from French cul­ti­var Picholine won a Gold Award in the NYIOOC World Olive Oil Com­pe­ti­tion. In 2018 a Chi­nese olive oil won in the ripe fruiti­ness cat­e­gory in the Mario Soli­nas Awards.

Extra vir­gin olive oils cur­rently dom­i­nate the Chi­nese pro­duc­tion, with a small per­cent­age of vir­gin oils. In the 2016/17 cam­paign, approx­i­mately 5,000 tons of olive oil were pro­duced, a fig­ure that dou­bled that of 2014/15. It is esti­mated that the 2017/18 cam­paign will attain 6,000 tons.

I believe domes­tic pro­duc­tion is a good plat­form to develop mar­kets more quickly as it hap­pened in South Africa, Aus­tralia, New Zealand or the United States,” said Botas, who sug­gested that as Chi­nese con­sumers learn more about olive oils and their culi­nary appli­ca­tions in Chi­nese cui­sine, demand will increase even more, offer­ing more oppor­tu­ni­ties for olive oil pro­duc­ers from all over the world to have a piece of the Chi­nese mar­ket.

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