Better Soil Management, Not Intensive Agriculture, Will Save Mediterranean Olive Groves

It feels like climate change has arrived, and the olive oil industry might be first in the firing line. Luckily, we already know what to do.
By Eurof Uppington
Sep. 7, 2023 19:35 UTC

Andalusia, the most impor­tant olive-grow­ing area in the world, is fac­ing two failed har­vests in a row.

Record-break­ing high spring tem­per­a­tures in 2022 have been fol­lowed by unsea­son­able drought (and then extreme flood­ing) in 2023. Climate change has arrived, and the olive oil indus­try might be first in the fir­ing line. We could be fac­ing a period of volatil­ity, dis­rup­tion, and, at worst, eco­log­i­cal col­lapse.

If it’s at least pos­si­ble that some­thing has bro­ken in Andalusia… it could be a national and indus­try-wide eco­log­i­cal, eco­nomic and social cat­a­stro­phe. A response is needed from gov­ern­ment and busi­ness.

All-time highs in global prices are the first impact of the cri­sis. Great news for farm­ers with yield. But bad for proces­sors, brands, and cus­tomers. High prices mean sub­sti­tu­tion with cheaper cook­ing oils and incen­tivize fraud by providers. And booms almost always lead to busts, which can wipe out invest­ments pred­i­cated on those higher prices. As they say in the energy sec­tor, the cure for high prices is high prices.”

For brands and proces­sors, the obvi­ous response is to find new sup­ply and start plant­ing in other regions — the more effi­cient, the bet­ter. So, invest­ment in super-high-den­sity groves in Portugal seems to be accel­er­at­ing, and in Tunisia, the other great area of recent out­put growth, the government’s export pro­mo­tion strat­egy is also to push for renewal” of cur­rent pro­duc­tion by super-high-den­sity cul­ti­va­tion.

But doing the same thing all over again might be a mis­take.

My com­pany, Amfora, sells extra vir­gin olive oil from regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture farm­ers. We’re strong believ­ers in the sci­ence and the ben­e­fits of soil regen­er­a­tion.

From this per­spec­tive, the cur­rent cri­sis in Andalusia is not a sur­prise. It is the long-fore­told result of bio­di­ver­sity col­lapse, soil degra­da­tion, bro­ken water cycles, and, in turn, the input-inten­sive tech­niques that super-high-den­sity olive farm­ing encour­ages.

Using this cri­sis to extend input-inten­sive prac­tices won’t help our indus­try adapt to cli­mate change but rather make it more vul­ner­a­ble. Ultimately, it will spread eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter to as yet unaf­fected regions.

How input-inten­sive groves dam­age ecosys­tems is easy to under­stand. Where cen­te­nary groves are ripped out to cre­ate high-den­sity rows, demand for nutri­ents increases beyond the capac­ity of unnur­tured soil to pro­vide and renew itself.

Artificial fer­til­izer meets that demand but, at the same time, dis­rupts micro­bial-fun­gal exchange net­works that we now under­stand sup­port soil life, reduc­ing nat­ural fer­til­ity fur­ther. To reduce com­pe­ti­tion for food and water, farm­ers apply her­bi­cide to kill weeds, cre­at­ing bare soil and denud­ing bio­di­ver­sity that sup­ports nat­ural preda­tors of pests such as the olive fly. Pesticide becomes nec­es­sary to main­tain qual­ity and yield. Fungicide, too, is needed to sup­port trees now more sus­cep­ti­ble to infec­tions, killing any ben­e­fi­cial fungi that remain.

So now much of Andalusian olive cul­ti­va­tion exists in a mono­cul­ture desert, main­tained only by chem­i­cal inputs — rocky dry ground, dirt, not soil, con­tain­ing lit­tle organic mat­ter and hold­ing very lit­tle water; the plant and soil evap­o­tran­spi­ra­tion that pre­vi­ously cre­ated rain has dis­ap­peared. Increased water demand can only come from local aquifers, which are no longer renewed. When rain does come, it stays on the sur­face and cre­ates flood­ing.

This is a self-rein­forc­ing cas­cade: a pos­i­tive feed­back loop that explains what we’re wit­ness­ing in 2023. Hydrologists call the end game drought-fire-flood.” We can see this at work in California, another region where high-den­sity agro­forestry is the rule. While Andalusia has, at least so far, been spared the fire, flood and drought both appear new and per­sis­tent fea­tures.

So what now? How sure are we this is real? Do we need to write off bil­lions invested in inten­sive olive oil pro­duc­tion in Southern Spain? What can we do?

Firstly, it’s obvi­ous that no one knows. Two con­sec­u­tive failed har­vests might be a freak event. The 2024/25 har­vest might be huge, and prices may nor­mal­ize. New sources of sup­ply might come online, off­set­ting volatil­ity in Andalusian out­put.

But even if we can’t be sure struc­tural change is here, we can mea­sure its poten­tial impact. If it’s at least pos­si­ble that some­thing has bro­ken in Andalusia, respon­si­ble for almost 40 per­cent of global olive oil pro­duc­tion, it could be a national and indus­try-wide eco­log­i­cal, eco­nomic and social cat­a­stro­phe. A response is needed from gov­ern­ment and busi­ness.

Happily, it is too soon to write the region off. Olive trees aren’t meant to destroy ecosys­tems. They’re a regional key­stone species; they can hold the land together, draw­ing water from deep under­ground for use by other species, pro­vid­ing rich habi­tat and other envi­ron­men­tal ser­vices — not to men­tion deli­cious and healthy nutri­tion for human com­mu­ni­ties. They can do so again.


The solu­tions are not new or hard; we already know what to do. Spanish sci­en­tists, such as Millán Millán, direc­tor of the Center for Environmental Studies of the Mediterranean in Valencia, have been research­ing water cycles and how to fix them for decades.

We know plants help cre­ate their own rain. Re-veg­e­tat­ing wasted land and slow­ing runoff from water­sheds using cis­terns, trenches and swales are all solu­tions at a land­scape level. Creating bio­di­ver­sity refuges such as hedges and cor­ri­dors to bring back preda­tors can reduce the need for bio­cides.

As Dimitri Tsitos of the Arbo-Innova Project points out, plant­ing cover crops in high-den­sity groves can greatly con­tribute to adding fer­til­ity, reduc­ing ground tem­per­a­tures, and boost­ing soil water reten­tion. Arbo-Innova is inter­est­ing, a brand-new ini­tia­tive to help regen­er­ate high-den­sity groves in Iberia, sup­ported by lead­ing con­sul­tants such as Soil Capital Farming.

Landscape-level adap­ta­tions might reduce areas under cul­ti­va­tion and thus out­put per farm. But plot-level sav­ings in input costs can mean farms make more profit. Farmers could see increases in over­all yield as soils come back to life.

Mindset shifts are needed; plowed soil between trees was always the sign of a tidy” grove. Instead, farm­ers should take pride in rich plant bio­mass and bio­di­ver­sity, know­ing root exu­date exchange is feed­ing their trees.

No-till cover is just a start; ani­mal inte­gra­tion, even syn­trop­ics, are pos­si­ble future inter­ven­tions. Better tast­ing and more nutri­tious oil could mean improved pric­ing and oppor­tu­ni­ties to reform the indus­try.

New mar­ket­ing mod­els, such as Amfora’s, can help, too; we cut out inter­me­di­aries, bring­ing regen­er­a­tive farm­ers a greater share of final pric­ing. Overall, we’ve just scratched the sur­face of the pro­duc­tiv­ity gains from the regen­er­a­tion rev­o­lu­tion.

Climate change is global, but the world is made up of land­scapes; there are sim­ple actions farm­ers can take to pro­tect and renew theirs. Collectively, we can head off dis­as­ter and even make things bet­ter and more resilient. Acknowledge the prob­lem and act.


Eurof Uppington

Eurof Uppington is the CEO and founder of Amfora, a Swiss-based olive oil retailer focused on pro­mot­ing sus­tain­abil­ity.


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