`Olive Oil's Biggest Problem

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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.

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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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