Olive Oil Production Data in Europe Reveal Divergent Trends

Production in Italy and Greece is down sharply. In Spain and Portugal, it's dramatically higher.

Mar. 27, 2019
By Ylenia Granitto and Daniel Dawson

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Olive oil pro­duc­tion is trend­ing in dif­fer­ent direc­tions in two Euro­pean regions.

On the Iber­ian Penin­sula, Spain and Por­tu­gal have seen their olive oil har­vests con­tin­u­ously grow to record lev­els over the past 15 years.

The sec­tor gained a boost in both (Spain and Por­tu­gal) by a favor­able envi­ron­ment for invest­ments to cre­ate infra­struc­ture and the mod­ern­iza­tion of olive groves.- Jorge de Melo, Sovena CEO

Last year, both coun­tries enjoyed excel­lent yields, with Spain pro­duc­ing 1,598,900 tons and Por­tu­gal pro­duc­ing 115,000 tons. These respec­tively rep­re­sent the third- and sec­ond-best har­vests the coun­tries have ever had.

Mean­while, on the other side of the trad­ing bloc, Italy and Greece have both seen annual yields con­tinue to dimin­ish over the same period of time and at a stun­ningly sim­i­lar rate.

Italy pro­duced 265,000 tons, which is the country’s third small­est yield in more than a decade. In Greece, only 225,000 tons were pro­duced, which rep­re­sents their third worst har­vest in the past decade as well.

This trend could be due to sim­i­lar tra­di­tional olive farm­ing sys­tems shared by (Italy and Greece).- Tul­lia Gal­lina Toschi, pro­fes­sor of agri­cul­tural and food sci­ences at the Uni­ver­sity of Bologna

Sev­eral fac­tors are impact­ing pro­duc­tion across these four coun­tries, but cli­mate change may be one of the biggest. Accord­ing to mul­ti­ple mete­o­rol­o­gists inter­viewed for this arti­cle, the region will con­tinue to get hot­ter and drier, in gen­eral, with more spo­radic episodes of intense cold and intense rain at vary­ing times of the year.

In prin­ci­ple, cli­mate warm­ing, in the Mediter­ranean area, will mean, not only the increase in tem­per­a­tures but above all the loss of reg­u­lar­ity in atmos­pheric times,” Jorge Olcina, the head of the Uni­ver­sity of Alicante’s cli­mate insti­tute, told Olive Oil Times.

See more: Olive Oil Pro­duc­tion News

This means that we will have more intense and abrupt changes of weather, with hot days, fol­lowed by sud­den tem­per­a­ture drops; droughts of short dura­tion but intense, punc­tu­ated by episodes of tor­ren­tial rains,” Olcina added. And this will man­i­fest itself in both the east­ern and west­ern sec­tors with­out fixed peri­od­ic­ity.”

Kostas Liris, a Greek agron­o­mist and olive oil expert, agreed that sim­i­lar weather pat­terns, specif­i­cally sim­i­lar pat­terns of bad weather in recent har­vest years, have played a role in the down­ward trends of both Greek and Ital­ian olive oil pro­duc­tion.

The gen­eral cli­mate con­di­tions affect a lot the pro­duc­tion and between Italy and Greece, we have a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ties,” he told Olive Oil Times. The south of Italy and Greece share the same weather, which nat­u­rally has to do with the pro­duc­tion and the qual­ity of the oils pro­duced. When there is a lot of cold or even snow in Italy, after two to four days we have sim­i­lar weather in Greece.”

The same pat­tern applies for hot weather and con­di­tions of drought as well.

Gio­vanni Bianchi is the pro­ducer of 2016 NYIOOC Best in Class Argali and har­vests olives from groves in Pelo­pon­nese, which is located in south­ern Greece. He told Olive Oil Times that recent cli­matic con­di­tions have impacted his har­vest and he believes these same con­di­tions are affect­ing other pro­duc­ers in both Italy and Greece.

My olive grove is located in Gar­galianoi, in the Pelo­pon­nese, where the cli­mate is mild, and it was, usu­ally, dry from June to the end of August,” he said. But in the last few years, although it does not rain, it is very humid; then, from early Sep­tem­ber, pre­cip­i­ta­tion became more fre­quent.”

The west­ern coast of the Pelo­pon­nese is right across from Italy, and the weather events gen­er­ally occur in accor­dance with what hap­pened in south­ern Italy, in par­tic­u­lar in Puglia,” Bianchi added. Farm­ers in this area of Greece often check the weather fore­cast for that Ital­ian region, because it fre­quently hap­pens that a storm front moves from Puglia to this coastal strip within 24 to 36 hours.”

How­ever, the sec­ond and the third largest pro­duc­ers in the E.U. have more in com­mon than just con­nected weather.

Tul­lia Gal­lina Toschi, a pro­fes­sor at the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­tural and Food Sci­ences of the Uni­ver­sity of Bologna, told Olive Oil Times that the two coun­tries share sim­i­lar meth­ods of cul­ti­va­tion and pro­duc­tion, which may also help to explain the sim­i­lar­i­ties in their trends.

This trend could be due to sim­i­lar tra­di­tional olive farm­ing sys­tems shared by these two coun­tries,” she said. Indeed, Greece and Italy are char­ac­ter­ized by a frag­mented olive oil pro­duc­tion, man­aged by small farm­ers or even big pro­duc­ers, with­out sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ment of inten­sive and super-inten­sive farm­ing sys­tems, which are more com­monly imple­mented in Spain.”

The more frag­mented and tra­di­tional pro­duc­tion of Italy and Greece, linked to many local olive cul­ti­vars and farms, and typ­i­cal olive oil pro­duc­tions – such as PDO, PGI, monocul­ti­var and high-qual­ity pro­duc­tions – leads to higher fluc­tu­a­tion in the olive oil pro­duc­tion along the years,” she added.

Far­ther west in Spain and Por­tu­gal the upward trend in olive oil pro­duc­tion is less closely aligned, but nonethe­less notice­ably sim­i­lar.

Cli­matic con­di­tions may play a small role in these sim­i­lar­i­ties, but over­all sim­i­lar pro­duc­tion tech­niques and grow­ing invest­ments are the dri­ving fac­tors behind this increased pro­duc­tion.

Jorge de Melo is the CEO of Sovena, which is one of Portugal’s largest agribusi­ness hold­ing groups. He told Olive Oil Times that both Spain and Por­tu­gal have favor­able invest­ment cli­mates, which in turn has led to improve­ments to olive cul­ti­va­tion and oil pro­duc­tion.

The sec­tor gained a boost in both coun­tries by a favor­able envi­ron­ment for invest­ments to cre­ate infra­struc­ture and the mod­ern­iza­tion of olive groves,” he said. The intro­duc­tion of new vari­eties and the intro­duc­tion of irri­ga­tion have led to increased pro­duc­tiv­ity in the two neigh­bor­ing coun­tries.”

De Melo cited the invest­ment in the Alqueva dam in Alen­tejo, which has allowed super-inten­sive olive groves to be cul­ti­vated in a region where they oth­er­wise would not be, as one exam­ple of how grow­ing invest­ment is fuel­ing a rise in pro­duc­tion.

The pro­vi­sion of water for irri­ga­tion in an area with good agri­cul­tural voca­tion was the engine for the devel­op­ment of mod­ern agri­cul­ture that lever­aged the Por­tuguese olive sec­tor with excel­lent results in terms of quan­tity and qual­ity of the oils pro­duced,” he said.

Vin­cenzo Ben­evento, an expe­ri­enced agron­o­mist and inde­pen­dent scholar based in Cal­abria observed that in most cases, in the pro­duc­tive areas of Italy and Greece, irri­ga­tion is not sys­tem­atic, and often imple­mented only in case of a water emer­gency.

Cli­mate and rain­fall pat­terns are sim­i­lar, or even iden­ti­cal, in sev­eral areas of Greece and south­ern Italy, which accounts for most of the national pro­duc­tion of olive oil,” he said. We must add to this the sim­i­lar­i­ties of the cul­ti­va­tion tech­niques, also tak­ing into account the aver­age size of farms, as the plots are often too small to allow a stream­lined phy­tosan­i­tary defense pro­gram.”

More­over, sev­eral olive trees are sec­u­lar, there­fore it is dif­fi­cult to change their aspect and man­age­ment, which is gen­er­ally based on non-sys­tem­atic irri­ga­tion, fer­til­iza­tion, and plant health pro­tec­tion,” he added. This makes the pro­duc­tion trends of both coun­tries, which share also a sim­i­lar ratio between the uti­lized agri­cul­tural area and the num­ber of plants, more sus­cep­ti­ble to the vagaries of cli­mate.”

Mean­while, in Spain, the process of grow­ing new super-inten­sive olive groves along with stream­lin­ing and mod­ern­iz­ing oil mills is fuel­ing the increas­ing pro­duc­tion of the world’s largest olive oil pro­ducer.

In Spain, there are two phe­nom­ena [that have led to the increase in pro­duc­tion], the increase and the improve­ment of the pro­duc­tiv­ity through irri­ga­tion sys­tems and the cul­ti­va­tion of new plan­ta­tions.” Juan Vilar, a Span­ish olive oil con­sul­tant, told Olive Oil Times.

This improved pro­duc­tiv­ity has, in turn, led to increased invest­ment both in olive groves as well as olive mills from both for­eign and domes­tic par­ties

Instead of look­ing for areas to plant olive trees out­side of Spain, investors are look­ing for places to do so in Spain,” Vilar said. For instance, in Extremadura, nearly 62,000 acres have been planted in the last five years.”

Spain and Por­tu­gal have also ben­e­fited in recent years from dif­fer­ent weather events that have come just when grow­ers needed them to.

As regards Por­tu­gal and Spain, their pro­duc­tion increases are par­tially due to a good rainy year,” Rafael Pico Lapuente, the direc­tor of Aso­liva, told Olive Oil Times. In the case of Spain, it is also note­wor­thy that we have many medium-sized pro­duc­ers, with olive trees rest­ing on alter­nate years, which means there can be an increase in pro­duc­tion when the rains come.”

Bar­ring cli­matic dis­as­ters akin to the ones that occurred in Italy and Greece this year – some­thing cli­ma­tol­o­gists have not ruled out – Spain and Por­tu­gal both have the poten­tial for record-break­ing har­vests in the com­ing years, accord­ing to Vilar.

In Spain, there is the capac­ity to pro­duce two mil­lion tons if the weather coop­er­ates,” he added. On the other hand Por­tu­gal, in more than five years will be the fifth largest pro­duc­ing coun­try in the world.”

How­ever, with­out an increase of invest­ment and shift away from rain-fed agri­cul­tural prac­tices in Italy and Greece, Vilar pre­dicted that pro­duc­tion there will con­tinue to trend down­wards.

Greece and Italy will, step-by-step, lose impor­tance,” he said.

More dif­fi­cult grow­ing sea­sons across the Mediter­ranean are almost cer­tain. While Spain and Por­tu­gal adapt by stream­lin­ing cul­ti­va­tion and milling processes, Gal­lina Toschi, the Uni­ver­sity of Bologna agri­cul­ture and food sci­ence pro­fes­sor, believes that Greece and Italy will have to shift their focus to qual­ity of pro­duc­tion.

Major down­ward fluc­tu­a­tions in vol­umes have not been matched by a loss of qual­ity in either of the two coun­tries, accord­ing to data from the NYIOOC. In fact, Italy and Greece have con­tin­ued to improve the qual­ity of their olive oils, par­tic­u­larly over the past two years, which can be seen in the steady increase of over­all awards as well as Gold and Best in Class awards that pro­duc­ers have received.

In terms of qual­ity, I can say that our panel ana­lyzed and eval­u­ated excel­lent extra vir­gin olive oils, diver­si­fied in taste, extremely fra­grant and par­tic­u­larly rich in polyphe­nols,” Gal­lina Toschi said.

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