`Olive Oil's Biggest Problem - Olive Oil Times

Olive Oil's Biggest Problem

Mar. 17, 2013
Virginia Brown Keyder

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Although no rev­o­lu­tion­ary prod­uct is yet ready for super­mar­ket shelves, exec­u­tives of these com­pa­nies are con­fi­dent. In a few decades, prob­a­bly 75% of the food we eat will come from genet­i­cally engi­neered crops,’ says Edward T. Shonsey, who runs the U.S. seeds divi­sion of Novartis AG, a Swiss phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal and chem­i­cal con­cern that plans to embark on an agri­cul­tural-acqui­si­tion spree.”(1)

That was 1998. Two core patents later(2), and free-rid­ing on a highly suc­cess­ful cam­paign by olive oil pro­duc­ers to inform the world of the health ben­e­fits of olive oil, and in par­tic­u­lar of oleic acid, Monsanto is poised to launch a soy­bean oil that will be both cheaper than olive oil and mir­ror at least some of its major health effects.

Based on Round-Up-Ready soy­beans (a fact not likely to be used in its adver­tis­ing cam­paigns), this may prove to be the pub­lic rela­tions coup of the cen­tury for Monsanto, who may at last claim to be pro­duc­ing some­thing that is good for humans.

Of course, the high priests of olive oil and their flocks will not be swayed – they will con­tinue to extol the bit­ter taste of fine oils regard­less. But for the mass mar­kets of new devo­tees from Patagonia to Beijing, many of whom are drawn to olive oil’s health ben­e­fits rather than the taste, and for the already olive-dis­en­fran­chised of the Mediterranean region increas­ingly recep­tive to other options for healthy fats, Monsanto’s pitch may well have stick­ing power.

For the extra vir­gin olive oil indus­try, this comes at a bad time. Supplies are down due to weather con­di­tions, par­tic­u­larly in Spain, the world’s largest pro­ducer, and this means prices are up. The world is still mired in reces­sion and shows no signs of recov­er­ing in the near future. This does not bode well for high-end, expen­sive-to-pro­duce extra vir­gin oil, which is already being replaced by lower qual­ity olive oils, blends and cheaper alter­na­tives.


As if this were not bad enough, the indus­try is engaged in destruc­tive infight­ing, with New World pro­duc­ers intent on bad-mouthing the European and North African oils to win mar­ket share at home and in new mar­kets abroad. This is in spite of the fact that the past few years have seen a bar­rage of new EU laws aimed at qual­ity assur­ance, and envi­ron­men­tal and con­sumer pro­tec­tion.

This is not to belit­tle prob­lems with European oils in the past, but with the USITC report on olive oil com­pe­ti­tion to come out in August (as men­tioned in ear­lier arti­cles – this is never for noth­ing), and the likely mud to be slung fol­low­ing in the US Farm Bill vs. the new EU Common Agricultural Policy (despite cuts voted through last week), the prospects look sadly lack­ing for the world extra vir­gin indus­try pulling together and rec­og­niz­ing the real dan­ger of cheap soy bean oil dressed up to look healthy.

Where’s the International Olive Council in all of this? The inter­gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion is so trapped in old ways of doing busi­ness it could not even reach a quo­rum to pass its own bud­get, leav­ing it in a state of paral­y­sis. It sat out a crit­i­cal Codex meet­ing and its direc­tor, Jean-Louis Barjol, passed up an invi­ta­tion from the orga­niz­ers of next mon­th’s New York International Olive Oil Competition to address an audi­ence assem­bled for the first major olive oil event in the world’s biggest mar­ket — a seem­ingly good place and time to mend fences.

If any­one thinks Monsanto may not be able to pull this off, cast your eyes back to their suc­cess last year in con­vinc­ing Californians (Californians!) they that don’t want to know what’s in their food, and for­ward to the prob­a­ble pas­sage next week of what has come to be called the Monsanto Protection Act(3) in the US Congress. Across the pond, the EU (at the level of the Commission as well as the European patent office) seems inex­plic­a­bly (if you ignore the grow­ing army of lob­by­ists) favor­ably dis­posed towards Monsanto and its ilk as well(4).

It’s not too late. This could be the brief moment in time when a united olive oil indus­try could work together to con­front what may be its biggest rival, which has noth­ing to do with bor­ders or coun­tries of ori­gin.

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