`Are Olives Next in the GMO Fight? - Olive Oil Times

Are Olives Next in the GMO Fight?

By Marcel E. Moran
Jan. 7, 2014 14:12 UTC

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.


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