More than a year has passed, but tempers are still high in California over the issue of genetically modified foods (GMOs). Last November, voters in the state were given a chance to decide if companies should be forced to label any products they sell that contain genetically modified ingredients. Early polling numbers indicated that the majority of Californians supported mandated GMO labeling, but a well-financed campaign in opposition to the law made significant inroads and the bill narrowly lost, 51 to 49 percent. Nationally, this ballot question shed light for the first time for many on GMOs, and raises the question, have olives, and olive oil been involved in genetic modification efforts?
The most prominent case of genetic modification in the olive took place in Italy, and began in 1982. Researchers at the University of Tuscia, about an hour North of Rome, sought new strains of olive trees that could resist fungal and bacterial infections, thereby requiring less pesticides to remain healthy. Before any research findings were reported, this project came to an abrupt end in the Summer of 2012 when, under pressure from anti-GMO organizations, the university was ordered to destroy the trees by the Italian government in order to comply with a 2002 law banning all field research on genetically engineered plants.
No such ban exists in the United States, but it seems the olive has so far escaped the attention of American plant scientists that have modified vegetables ranging from the tomato to the soybean to corn. According to Liliana Scarafia, principal researcher at AgBiolab, an independent agricultural laboratory that performs olive oil analysis in Durham, California, there has been little genetic engineering in the olive to date. “There’s no work in GMOs on olives.” she said. “I don’t see the interest, and I don’t see the benefits.” Patricia Darragh, the Executive Director of the California Olive Oil Council reiterated, “to our knowledge there is no GMO olive oil produced in the State of California.”
Of course, olive trees are selected by growers for specific qualities that develop naturally over time, such as strains of trees that can grow in higher density in a given amount of space, and the ease with which the olives can be harvested by a machine. Part of the reason olives may have avoided bioengineering is that they are not grown on the industrial scale that other oil producing plants are. “There is a great diversity of cultivars, richness of germplasm, and there may not be a push for commercial farming, or monocultivar farming,” Scarafia added.
This is not to say that U.S. olive oil farms and producers have stayed out of the GMO conversation. California Olive Ranch, the country’s largest producers of extra virgin olive oil, took an active role in supporting the proposed GMO labelling legislation, endorsing the “Yes On 37” coalition that was in favor of labeling, and making a donation to the advocacy group leading up to the November, 2012 ballot question. Mike Forbes, the director of sales and marketing at California Olive Ranch outlined why his company felt so strongly about GMOs. “If you think about our brand, it’s about transparency, we have a harvest date right on the back of our bottle, and we’re strong believers that you should know what’s in the food you buy.”
Ironically, some in the industry believe that greater transparency and awareness of genetically modified foods will be a boon for the olive oil business. The logic goes that as consumers start to realize that many of the vegetable and cooking oils they use contain genetically modified ingredients (such as soybean or cottonseed oil), they will seek out non-GMO alternatives, primarily olive oil. These non-olive vegetable oils may also be the way GMO products make their way into any olive oil batch; because olive oil is sometimes mixed with other oils, those extra ingredients may be sourced back to a genetically modified crop.
Olive itself is not the only target of genetic modification in the industry. In September of last year, Olive Oil Timesreported that European scientists are beginning trials of genetically modified olive flies, spearheaded by the company Oxitec, in the hopes that they can engineer a species that could systematically reduce the fly population and its effects on olive production. It remains to be seen if these flies will succeed in reducing the deleterious effects of the olive industry in the near future, but it is very likely to remain the primary site of bioengineering as far as olives are concerned. For now.