New Olive Growing Models Would Promote Biodiversity in Olive Groves

José Eugenio Gutiérrez and his collaborators want to create a biodiversity certification for table olives and olive oils.

Dec. 7, 2017
By Daniel Dawson

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A new project in Spain aims to rein­tro­duce bio­di­ver­sity into olive groves across the Euro­pean Union.

Envi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tists and olive grow­ers hope to devise an olive grow­ing model and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion that pro­duces high qual­ity oils, but also does not dam­age the nat­ural ecosys­tem.

There are only very few ways to save our crops, and all of them depend on bio­di­ver­sity.- José Euge­nio Gutiér­rez

In Spain, monocrop­ping of olive groves began in the late 1980s when the Com­mon Agri­cul­tural Process came into effect. The pol­icy called for the inten­si­fy­ing cul­ti­va­tion of these cash crops by elim­i­nat­ing every­thing that was not olive trees. This included the lib­eral appli­ca­tion of insec­ti­cides and her­bi­cides with­out regard to the later con­se­quences of these actions.

The pop­u­lar say­ing every lit­tle owl to its olive tree’ has become every lit­tle owl to its olive grove,’ ” said José Euge­nio Gutiér­rez, a biol­o­gist from the Uni­ver­sity of Jaén and coor­di­na­tor of the Olive Alive Project. This process has taken an enor­mous envi­ron­men­tal toll, caus­ing the loss of a good part of the bio­di­ver­sity of the olive grove and caus­ing exten­sive degra­da­tion of its ecosys­tem ser­vices.”

Gutiér­rez and his col­lab­o­ra­tors want to cre­ate the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for table olives and olive oils. Think some­thing like fair trade labels on bananas or cof­fee, but for bio­di­ver­sity.


This con­cern with bio­di­ver­sity comes at an uncer­tain time for mass-pro­duc­tion agri­cul­ture. Accord­ing to Rob Dunn, a pro­fes­sor of applied ecol­ogy at North Car­olina State Uni­ver­sity, the way in which agri­cul­ture — includ­ing olive tree cul­ti­va­tion — has been sim­pli­fied has put many crops at risk of extinc­tion from evolv­ing pathogens.

Nearly every crop in the world has under­gone a very sim­i­lar his­tory: domes­ti­cated in one region, then moved to another region, where it could escape its pests and pathogens,” Dunn wrote in his new book, Never Out Of Sea­son. But these pests and pathogens, in our global world of air­plane flights and boat trips, are catch­ing up.”

Olives are one of these crops that are now at risk. Xylella fas­tidiosa out­breaks have been reported in north­ern Italy, south­ern France, Cor­sica and the Balearic Islands. Increas­ing bio­di­ver­sity in olive groves is the best way to mit­i­gate the effects of these dis­eases.

Once they do catch up, there are only very few ways to save our crops, and all of them depend on bio­di­ver­sity, whether in the wild or among tra­di­tional crop vari­eties,” Dunn wrote.

The Olive Alive Project plans to cre­ate a human­ized for­est” by using olive trees, which are an appro­pri­ate key­stone species for renew­ing bio­di­ver­sity in the region. They are a per­ma­nent for­est crop, native to the Mediter­ranean and cre­ate a nat­ural envi­ron­ment for numer­ous other species.

“(Bio­di­ver­sity of olive groves) will be achieved by man­ag­ing the herba­ceous cover that are proven not to dimin­ish the pro­duc­tiv­ity of the olive grove,” Gutiér­rez said. And restor­ing the unpro­duc­tive (for­est) zones, such as bor­ders, banks or roads, that were destroyed or aban­doned.”

These zones will be restored by grow­ing native shrubs, build­ing nest­ing boxes for birds and other wildlife as well as dig­ging ponds. Then native species can be rein­tro­duced to the areas where Gutiér­rez believes they would thrive.

Gutiér­rez said that this new cer­ti­fi­ca­tion will give an added value to the result­ing olive oils, which he believes Euro­pean con­sumers are look­ing for.

There are more and more peo­ple, espe­cially in Europe, who are will­ing to do some­thing to con­serve the envi­ron­ment,” he said. “(We seek) to design the best strat­egy so that this oil has its niche in the mar­ket and the con­sumer knows how to value it.”

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