Olive Oil Production Expected to Decrease in Italy Due to Ongoing Drought

After a promising start to 2022, with plenty of blossoms on the olive trees, heat and dry weather have led to a significant fruit drop and a lower-than-expected harvest.
River Serio in Seriate, Bergamo, Italy
Jul. 13, 2022
Paolo DeAndreis

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New heat­waves set to hit Italy com­pounded by the country’s worst drought in 70 years are hav­ing a dev­as­tat­ing effect on Italian agri­cul­ture.

Even drought-resilient per­ma­nent crops are affected by the extra­or­di­nary con­di­tions, which are stress­ing olive groves across the coun­try.

After such an excep­tional flow­er­ing, the fruit set has greatly suf­fered because of the high tem­per­a­tures.- Federico Taddei, pres­i­dent, Confederation of Italian Farmers-Tuscany

The abun­dant olive flow­er­ing reported in the spring had raised hopes among many grow­ers, but the sub­se­quent heat­wave in June has sig­nif­i­cantly low­ered expec­ta­tions in most of the coun­try.

What we see now are fewer olives than many expected,” Sabrina Diamanti, pres­i­dent of the Italian National Council of Agronomist and Forest Scientists (CONAF), told Olive Oil Times.

See Also:2022 Harvest Updates

Even if the olive tree is resilient to warmer tem­per­a­tures, repeated heat­waves and drought will stop unnec­es­sary activ­i­ties, such as pro­duc­ing fruits, which is why we are start­ing to wit­ness sig­nif­i­cant drop events,” she added.

However, Diamanti also sug­gested that the cur­rent dry weather may curb the repro­duc­tion of the olive fruit fly.

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In Italy, we have three olive fruit fly gen­er­a­tions each year,” she said. The heat has con­tained the first one. We still have to see what hap­pens with the two next gen­er­a­tions. Should tem­per­a­ture and humid­ity change, the cur­rent sce­nario could change accord­ingly.”

Growers now must aim at main­tain­ing the olives they have and try to bring them to the har­vest sea­son,” Diamanti added. If, when and where pos­si­ble, they will deploy emer­gency irri­ga­tion.”

The reduced num­ber of olives on the trees does not rep­re­sent an issue for grow­ers, as the remain­ing fruits will accu­mu­late a higher per­cent­age of olive oil. Still, water scarcity might fur­ther exac­er­bate fruit drops, as the dru­pes add pulp over time and require more water to grow.

As the inten­sity of the drought has wors­ened, sev­eral Italian regions have for­mally declared a state of emer­gency due to defi­cient water lev­els in reser­voirs, lakes and rivers. As a result, water avail­abil­ity for irri­ga­tion has been sharply dimin­ished in cen­tral and north­ern Italy.

The gov­ern­ment acknowl­edged the emer­gency in Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Friuli Venezia Giulia. Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio are expected to fol­low suit.

The gov­ern­ment has deployed €36.5 mil­lion to com­pen­sate local farm­ers and ensure water dis­tri­b­u­tion to the pop­u­la­tion.

According to the Confederation of Italian Farmers (CIA), the pro­longed drought could sig­nif­i­cantly lower olive oil yields.

Olive trees are fac­ing another chal­leng­ing sea­son,” said Federico Taddei, pres­i­dent of CIA Tuscany. After such an excep­tional flow­er­ing, the fruit set has greatly suf­fered because of the high tem­per­a­tures. Should the cur­rent severe drought extend into the next few weeks, we will prob­a­bly wit­ness such water stress for olive trees that their fruits will fall to the ground.”

Aipol, the Lake Garda olive grow­ers coop­er­a­tive, told Brescia Oggi the com­bi­na­tion of high tem­per­a­tures and drought is test­ing the resilience of local groves.

Because of water scarcity, we see the dru­pes wither, show signs of necro­sis and then fall on the ground,” Aipol said. On top of that, we are see­ing a new wave of the mar­morated stink bug in the Garda area.”

Weather fore­casts also do not seem likely to help olive grow­ers, as more hot air is expected to blow in from North Africa, cov­er­ing all of Italy and much of the Mediterranean basin.

This is a new heat­wave that takes advan­tage of the absence of the Azores anti­cy­clone, which in the past used to pro­tect Italy from the scorch­ing north­ern African heat,” Mario Giuliacci, a mete­o­rol­ogy pro­fes­sor, told Olive Oil Times. It has almost dis­ap­peared, and we now see the con­se­quences.”

Giuliacci added that farm­ers should not expect sum­mer rain­fall to rebal­ance the sit­u­a­tion since it tends to be the dri­est sea­son dur­ing the year.

The loss of rain­fall has been so immense since last win­ter that there is no way to go back to a bal­ance,” he said. Look at the snow, we did not have any snow on our moun­tains in win­ter, and we did not have any rain­fall either in the fol­low­ing months. Drought will con­tinue.”

According to Unaprol, the national olive oil pro­duc­ers con­sor­tium, water scarcity and heat mean there will be lower yields of cer­tain olive oils cer­ti­fied with Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) or Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) sta­tus.

The con­sor­tium cited the Tuscany PGI and Terra di Barri PDO as two of the most sig­nif­i­cant exam­ples, both in terms of vol­ume and inter­na­tional mar­ket share.

Meanwhile, the Irrigation and Land Reclamation and Management Consortia (ANBI) has warned that the drought is quickly expand­ing across the south of the county as well, home to Italy’s two largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing regions, Puglia and Calabria.

It is the sixth rel­e­vant drought in 20 years,” said Francesco Vincenzi, pres­i­dent of ANBI. We can­not con­tinue to be over­whelmed by the emer­gency. We must adopt strate­gies to com­bat the con­se­quences of cli­mate change and upgrade the resilience of our com­mu­ni­ties.”

David Granieri, Unaprol’s pres­i­dent, fur­ther warned that cli­mate change requires imme­di­ate inter­ven­tion to sup­port farm­ers in the cur­rent and future olive grow­ing sea­sons.

A study pre­sented by the national farm­ers’ asso­ci­a­tion, Coldiretti, found that rain­fall in the first six months of 2022 decreased by 45 per­cent while the sur­face tem­per­a­ture in the same period was 0.76 ºC above aver­age. Coldiretti said 2022 already has been the hottest year on record.

According to the study, June has been 2.8 ºC warmer than aver­age. Higher tem­per­a­tures paired with the drought have resulted in €3 bil­lion in dam­age to farms and fueled sev­eral wild­fires in the coun­try.

As the higher pres­sure area from North Africa sets in, we see how sum­mer is not only bring­ing dry con­di­tions, but soil mois­ture lev­els are also decreas­ing,” said Giuliacci. This rep­re­sents a sig­nif­i­cant risk for farm­ing in many areas.”

Coldiretti, ANBI and Unaprol have asked the gov­ern­ment to build 10,000 small lakes to act as reser­voirs for irri­ga­tion and sup­port local ecosys­tems dam­aged by drought and heat.

We need to upgrade our water infra­struc­ture to reha­bil­i­tate the water net­works, which are respon­si­ble for an aver­age of 36 per­cent leak­age of potable water,” Diamanti added. The re-use of rain­fall, new water col­lec­tion facil­i­ties for non-potable water use and inno­va­tion in agri­cul­ture are the areas in which we need to invest.”

While she acknowl­edged that the project to build small lakes would help sup­port farm­ers in increas­ingly dry areas and pro­vide ammu­ni­tion to com­bat wild­fires, Diamanti said that they are only a sin­gle part of what needs to be a more holis­tic strat­egy.

This infra­struc­ture has to be built most effi­ciently. We cer­tainly do not need a net­work of empty basins,” Diamanti said.

That means an over­all vision for col­lect­ing and man­ag­ing waters. We need to look at the whole prob­lem from every angle… to main­tain the soil and pre­serve it,” she con­cluded.



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