`Changing Climate Challenges Olive Oil Sector in Catalonia - Olive Oil Times

Changing Climate Challenges Olive Oil Sector in Catalonia

May. 16, 2012
Julie Butler

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Water short­age due to cli­mate change could make parts of one of Catalonia’s top olive oil pro­duc­ing regions — the Siurana DOP — unvi­able within 20 years, accord­ing to researchers here.

Rising tem­per­a­tures augur well for opti­mal devel­op­ment of the olive fruit, but the reduced rain­fall and increased irri­ga­tion demands in the Siurana river basin will make pro­duc­tion much more costly and com­pli­cated, they say.

In the recent ACCUA (Water Use Adaptations to Climate Change) project report, the sci­en­tists say that, based on their analy­sis of the last 40 years, the vari­ables that most influ­ence the pro­duc­tion of olive oil are the max­i­mum tem­per­a­tures in spring, and the spring and sum­mer rain­fall.”

They go on to depict a Siurana that in 20 years will be half a degree hot­ter and by the end of the cen­tury 3.6°C more. By 2100, the already low rain­fall will have declined by about a quar­ter and irri­ga­tion needs shot up 95 per­cent to about 2500 m³ /ha/year.

Stretched along a strip in the province of Tarragona, per­pen­dic­u­lar to the Mediterranean, the Siurana DOP (equiv­a­lent to Protected Designation of Origin) cer­ti­fies an aver­age 4000 met­ric tons each year of arbe­quina oil. Exceptions like the recent drought aside, its pro­duc­tion has gen­er­ally risen along with the mer­cury and wider access to sup­ple­men­tal irri­ga­tion from a new dam. But with the dwin­dling rain­fall, this water sup­ply will be severely lim­ited. Meeting the increased water demand will be a strug­gle, the report warns.

And the grow­ing sea­son will be start­ing two weeks ear­lier by 2100, it pre­dicts, which will in turn impact on fruit qual­ity and water needs. The con­cept of degree days” is used to assess this change in the olive tree’s life cycle and their annual total is expected to swell by more than a third by 2100.

While sim­i­lar changes will affect the region’s wine indus­try, the impact there will be more benign. Out of grapes and olives it is the lat­ter that is most vul­ner­a­ble crop.”

It is dif­fi­cult to pro­pose agri­cul­tural mea­sures that could ensure the level and sta­bil­ity of pro­duc­tion,” the ACCUA authors say. Agronomical changes seem a log­i­cal option for main­tain­ing the liveli­hood of these olive farm­ers.”

So what could other pro­ducer regions learn from all this? Olive Oil Times spoke with lead researcher Dr. Robert Savé Montserrat, R&D Coordinator of the Environmental Horticulture Program at the IRTA research insti­tute.

OOT: It’s often said that olive trees are very drought resis­tant but your research says they are among the most vul­ner­a­ble crops. Why is this?

Dr. Montserrat: Olive trees, like many Mediterranean species, are very resis­tant to drought, but it’s nec­es­sary to put it in con­text, namely that of agri­cul­ture in the twenty-first cen­tury where, in addi­tion to out­put (kg), we expect qual­ity, reli­a­bil­ity, and low inputs so as to increase effi­ciency. In other words, to achieve the max­i­mum with the min­i­mum — high effi­ciency.


A plant can with­stand a drought by drop­ping leaves, not flow­er­ing, abort­ing fruit, shed­ding branches and so on, but that is the oppo­site of what is desired for a crop.

If what is wanted is high pro­duc­tion, high qual­ity and sta­bil­ity, to allow for brand­ing and Denominations of Origin, sales based on con­sis­tent qual­ity, then olive trees need water.

Olive oil is con­sumed for many rea­sons apart from tra­di­tional ones, such as for its ben­e­fi­cial prop­er­ties derived from sec­ondary metab­o­lism. The lat­ter depends on many fac­tors and among them is (heat and water) stress. Some peo­ple there­fore say that unir­ri­gated trees pro­duce bet­ter olive oil, and some say the oppo­site. I just read and bear it in mind, it’s not my area of exper­tise.

Speaking a few years ago about the impact of cli­mate change, Bodegas Torres chief Miguel Angel Torres said that cli­mate change had led his wine com­pany to buy land fur­ther north in Catalonia, near the Pyrenees. Do you think parts of Catalonia’s olive sec­tor will end up fol­low­ing suit?

Personally I wouldn’t con­sider the Pyrenees, because frosts would be too much of a con­straint for these species, and so would be the (dif­fi­cult) man­age­ment of the land and cul­ti­va­tion. Together with trans­port costs, the car­bon foot­print would be very high if these prod­ucts were made in this moun­tain­ous area.

It may go beyond the scope of this research project, but what would be a more appro­pri­ate alter­na­tive to olives in the worst affected parts of the Siurana?

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Yes, it its out­side ACCUA’s scope and and I’m just an eco­phys­i­ol­o­gist observ­ing the countryside.There would, how­ever, be an alter­na­tive and it wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily involve a change of species but per­haps of vari­eties and/or agri­cul­tural prac­tices, for instance plan­ta­tion den­sity and sum­mer prun­ing. This would prob­a­bly reduce pro­duc­tion but retain the qual­ity and activ­ity.

What could other pro­ducer coun­tries learn from this research?

The ACCUA report could be use­ful for peo­ple in other Mediterranean coun­tries also poten­tially affected by cli­mate change. I say that because apart from indi­cat­ing the need for water, the results show major changes in the phe­nol­ogy of this species (chill hour needs, changes in bud­ding and flow­er­ing, changes in the metab­o­lism of the olive fruit, etc.) with increased tem­per­a­tures.

The ACCUA Project

ACCUA was set up in 2008 to assess Catalonia’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity to key effects of global cli­mate change on water avail­abil­ity, and to deter­mine the best way to min­i­mize its neg­a­tive con­se­quences.

The research was co-ordi­nated by the Center of Ecological Investigation and Forestry Applications (Creaf) and other par­tic­i­pants were IRTA, ETC-LUSI and UPC. It was funded by the CatalunyaCaixa Social Project.



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