One-Third of Global Olive Oil Production Comes from Intensive Farming

A report found that high-density groves account for 3 percent of cultivation, but 36 percent of olive oil production.
By Paolo DeAndreis
Oct. 10, 2022 17:26 UTC

A small frac­tion of the world’s olive-grow­ing sur­face pro­duces more than one-third of all olive oil due to the immense yields of super-high-den­sity groves. According to experts, the share of olive oil pro­duced by super-high-den­sity groves is likely to grow.

A report pub­lished by the Spanish tree nurs­ery com­pany Agromillora said approx­i­mately 3 per­cent of the olive-grow­ing hectares in the world are super-high-den­sity groves. Still, their yield has grown to 36 per­cent of the global olive oil pro­duc­tion.

Super-high-den­sity groves, also known as hedge olive orchards, com­prise about 1,600 olive trees per hectare. Trees are planted approx­i­mately one meter apart in rows three to four meters wide. Their man­age­ment is entirely mech­a­nized.

According to the study by Juan Vilar Strategic Consultants, 11.6 mil­lion hectares of olive groves are spread across 66 coun­tries. Of these, 400,000 hectares are super high den­sity.

See Also:Global Olive Oil Production Will Reach 4.4M Tons by 2050, Expert Projects

According to Agromillora, this approach allows greater pro­duc­tiv­ity and lower work­force costs due to the high mech­a­niza­tion, early entry into pro­duc­tion and effi­cient har­vest­ing.

Due to their depen­dence on water avail­abil­ity and mostly flat land­scapes, not all groves can be planted with this approach. Where pos­si­ble, grow­ers can adopt spe­cific cul­ti­vars which have been shown to offer the best results in such an envi­ron­ment, such as Arbosana, Koroneiki or Manzanilla.

According to Agromillora, har­vest­ing a hectare of super-high-den­sity olive trees requires one or two hours at most, with har­vest­ing costs reduced to €0.03 to 0.06 per kilo­gram of olives.

This type of har­vest allows the olive to be har­vested at the cor­rect state of mat­u­ra­tion and a quick deliv­ery of the fruits to the mill for trans­for­ma­tion, reduc­ing the dete­ri­o­ra­tion that they may suf­fer and the pos­si­ble unde­sir­able fla­vors or aro­mas in the oil,” the com­pany said.

Employing 44,000 work­ers remu­ner­ated with €90 mil­lion per annum, invest­ment in super-high den­sity groves reaches approx­i­mately €7 bil­lion, with an aver­age turnover per har­vest of around €2 bil­lion, about 15 per­cent of aver­age global rev­enues.

The report said super-high-den­sity groves gen­er­ate about €450 mil­lion per annum in terms of tax rev­enue and invest­ment in the local econ­omy.

The authors said the report’s pri­mary goal is to empha­size how the impact of the super-high den­sity groves is not lim­ited to yields. The report argues that super-high-den­sity groves can also improve sus­tain­abil­ity and bio­di­ver­sity.

It has been sci­en­tif­i­cally estab­lished that the olive grove in hedgerows is a cat­a­lyst of bio­di­ver­sity as through veg­e­ta­tion cover and the opti­miza­tion of resources, espe­cially water, it slows ero­sion,” the report said.

With its 35,000 hectares planted annu­ally (accord­ing to esti­mates from the three crop years stud­ied), [such orchards are] some­how coun­ter­act­ing, veg­e­ta­tive and grad­u­ally, the 420 mil­lion hectares of for­est that have been lost world­wide since 1990,” it added.

However, not every­one agrees with this con­clu­sion. A 2021 study from the University of Jaén found that tra­di­tional olive groves sequester more car­bon diox­ide than super-high-den­sity groves.

A sep­a­rate study, also pub­lished by the University of Jaén in 2021, con­cluded that inten­sive agri­cul­tural prac­tices in olive groves usu­ally cause bio­di­ver­sity loss by exert­ing intense pres­sure on plants, birds and insects.

A third study from Spain’s national agency for sci­en­tific research (CSIC) linked super-high-den­sity olive cul­ti­va­tion to increased deser­ti­fi­ca­tion in Andalusia, the world’s largest olive oil-pro­duc­ing region.

Away from the envi­ron­men­tal claims and counter-claims, the report also found that super-high-den­sity groves are a sig­nif­i­cant source of employ­ment in rural areas and also com­bat food waste.

Wherever it is pos­si­ble to trans­form the olive grove into a hedge, it sets more pop­u­la­tion in the ter­ri­tory than any other type of olive cul­ti­va­tion, and what set­tles the peo­ple in the ter­ri­tory is wealth,” said Juan Vilar dur­ing the pre­sen­ta­tion of the report at the Fruit Attraction agri­food fair.

Once again, not every­one agrees with this con­clu­sion. Researchers from the University of Jaén told Olive Oil Times that tra­di­tional groves cre­ate more year-round jobs – though not nec­es­sar­ily bet­ter jobs – than super-high-den­sity groves due to the need for man­ual har­vest­ing and main­te­nance in tra­di­tional groves.

As a case study to illus­trate its claims, the report cited the devel­op­ment of super-high-den­sity olive groves in Alentejo, Portugal’s most rel­e­vant olive-pro­duc­ing region.

Alentejo has been an excel­lent exam­ple of the com­pat­i­bil­ity of an eco­nom­i­cally prof­itable cul­ture, which allows cre­at­ing value in the sec­tor and in the region, with the pro­mo­tion of envi­ron­men­tal and social devel­op­ment indi­ca­tors,” the report said.

That is, with a sig­nif­i­cant impact on car­bon seques­tra­tion, on the pro­vi­sion of ecosys­tem ser­vices and on pop­u­la­tion sta­bi­liza­tion in the ter­ri­tory,” it added. After the imple­men­ta­tion of these plan­ta­tions, by cam­paign, the oppor­tu­nity for sta­ble and per­ma­nent work has been cre­ated for more than 700 peo­ple.”

For the first time, the olive oil sec­tor has a com­pet­i­tive tool, the olive grove in hedge, to pro­duce extra vir­gin olive oil with sus­tain­able costs and to gain rel­e­vant mar­ket share against other veg­etable fats,” the report con­cluded.



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