5.5 Million Hectares of Traditional Olive Groves at Risk of Abandonment

A new report highlights the major transformation that the olive sector is undergoing, with modern groves set to replace many traditional ones.

By Paolo DeAndreis
Sep. 28, 2021 09:30 UTC

A con­sid­er­able num­ber of tra­di­tional olive groves are neglected by the own­ers or out­right aban­doned, accord­ing to the lat­est report by the Spanish Traditional Grove Association (Asolite).

Already, 1.3 mil­lion hectares of tra­di­tional groves are con­sid­ered at-risk of aban­don­ment in Spain. The fig­ure rises to 5.5 mil­lion hectares glob­ally and is expected to grow over time.

The main rea­son for the aban­don­ment comes from the loss of income asso­ci­ated with the tra­di­tional orchard. As mod­ern orchards expand, many tra­di­tional groves are replaced.- Juan Vilar, strate­gic con­sul­tant

The report, to which Juan Vilar Strategic Consultants con­tributed, pro­vides data and con­sid­er­a­tions about the char­ac­ter­is­tics of a deci­sive and ongo­ing change in the entire sec­tor.

See Also:Rehabilitating Olive Trees in Aragón to Stem Spain’s Rural Exodus

Traditional groves are rapidly being replaced by high-den­sity and super-high-den­sity groves (known as inten­sive and super-inten­sive groves in Spain), which are more prof­itable due to sub­stan­tially lower oper­at­ing costs.

The main rea­son for the aban­don­ment comes from the loss of income asso­ci­ated with the tra­di­tional orchard,” Juan Vilar told Olive Oil Times. As mod­ern orchards expand, many tra­di­tional groves are replaced.”

Still, many of them are located where mech­a­niza­tion is not fea­si­ble, such as in many hills or on the moun­tains,” he added. Those increas­ingly will feel the com­pet­i­tive pres­sure com­ing from extra vir­gin olive oils pro­duced by mod­ern tech­niques.”

Globally, olive groves cover 11.5 mil­lion hectares, occu­py­ing more than one per­cent of cul­tivable land and mak­ing it the most wide­spread per­ma­nent sin­gle crop in the world. As a result, the authors wrote that olive groves’ impact on bio­di­ver­sity and the envi­ron­ment can­not be under­es­ti­mated.

Though the def­i­n­i­tion varies, tra­di­tional groves usu­ally com­prise between 70 and 120 trees per hectare, with a dis­tance of 10 or 12 meters between the trees. About 84 per­cent of all tra­di­tional groves are not irri­gated, the trees usu­ally become pro­duc­tive five or 10 years after plant­ing, and many are more than a cen­tury old.

This means that whichever strat­egy one can con­ceive for keep­ing up with the tra­di­tional grove, it will be totally dif­fer­ent from the scope and invest­ments of the mod­ern orchards,” Vilar said.

Super-high-den­sity plants can hold up to 3,000 trees per hectare, planted in rows and wholly irri­gated.

While tra­di­tional groves must be cared for by hand or at most with the help of sim­ple elec­tric tools, mod­ern groves are entirely mech­a­nized so that work­force, work hours and over­all costs are dra­mat­i­cally reduced.

According to the report, global olive pro­duc­tion is between 17 and 22 mil­lion tons, of which 86 per­cent are used for olive oil pro­duc­tion. In the last 30 years, olive oil pro­duc­tion has spiked 220 per­cent, ris­ing from 1.46 mil­lion tons to the cur­rent 3.19 mil­lion.

In the last 15 years, 1.65 mil­lion hectares of new olive orchards have been planted, and the num­ber of coun­tries where olives are grown rose from 46 to 66. All of this gen­er­ates more than €12.5 bil­lion and directly employs more than 28.6 mil­lion peo­ple.

While around 70 per­cent of all olive groves in the world are tra­di­tional, five per­cent have been aban­doned in the last few years. Meanwhile, 32 per­cent are located in areas con­sid­ered non-mech­a­niz­able.”

In the last few years, the amount of high-den­sity and super-high-den­sity groves have grown 7.4 per­cent.


Since tra­di­tional orchards today still account for 55 to 60 per­cent of the over­all olive oil pro­duc­tion, the ongo­ing changes dra­mat­i­cally impact the sec­tor.

According to the report pro­jec­tions, some tra­di­tional groves that can­not be mech­a­nized will be replaced by more prof­itable crops. This trend is likely to grow and could bring a nat­ural bal­ance within the sec­tor while also con­tribut­ing to a pos­si­ble struc­tural olive oil price recov­ery.

See Also:Intensive Olive Farms Contribute to Desertification in Spain, Experts Warn

Still, in the olive-devoted Spanish region of Andalusia, 80 per­cent of the work­force in the olive sec­tor work with tra­di­tional groves, which shows how sig­nif­i­cant an impact the cur­rent trans­for­ma­tions are des­tined to have.

Many small com­mu­ni­ties located in the hills or the moun­tains thrived with the tra­di­tional orchards,” Vilar said. Not only did they pro­vide food to the locals, but they have been a source of income and social and cul­tural activ­i­ties.”


They are respon­si­ble for a spe­cial con­nec­tion between peo­ple and the land and kept local pop­u­la­tions in lands that oth­er­wise would have risked to be aban­doned,” he added.

The report also high­lighted the rel­e­vance of the genetic ero­sion of olive trees con­nected to the ongo­ing trans­for­ma­tions. The phe­nom­e­non of reduced genetic diver­sity is asso­ci­ated with the lim­ited num­ber of cul­ti­vars that can be grown in high-den­sity and super-high-den­sity groves – Sikitita, Arbequina, Arbosana, Koroneiki, Oleana and Leziana.

On the other hand, tra­di­tional groves are planted with hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent cul­ti­vars, some of which are endemic to spe­cific regions. As a result, these groves demon­strate the crop’s genetic diver­sity and role in dozens of local cul­tures.

They are also the source of dif­fer­ent kinds of extra vir­gin olive oil with their unique fla­vor and organolep­tic char­ac­ter­is­tics.

Modern groves pro­duce a very high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil thanks to the mech­a­niza­tion which allows olives to be har­vested with­out touch­ing the ground and trans­formed imme­di­ately after har­vest­ing,” Vilar said.

Still, the extra vir­gin olive oil from tra­di­tional pro­duc­tion often boasts more polyphe­nols – pow­er­ful antiox­i­dants largely asso­ci­ated with the many health ben­e­fits of extra vir­gin olive oil – and unique qual­i­ties strongly con­nected to the spe­cific cul­ti­vars.

In sev­eral European coun­tries, most tra­di­tional groves are located on small prop­er­ties. Many extra vir­gin olive oils that are pro­tected by the geo­graphic indi­ca­tors come from rel­a­tively small areas where spe­cific cul­ti­vars grow.

The report hints at the need for a new role for tra­di­tional groves, which com­bat deser­ti­fi­ca­tion in arid regions, effec­tively sequesters car­bon diox­ide and sus­tains bio­di­ver­sity in its sur­round­ings.

Furthermore, tra­di­tional groves require far fewer inter­ven­tions with pes­ti­cides and fungi­cides. They also pre­vent ero­sion since no heavy machin­ery is used to har­vest them and pro­mote a rich social and cul­tural con­nec­tion between the pop­u­la­tion and the ter­ri­tory.

Given the unique pro­file of the tra­di­tional orchard and its envi­ron­men­tal role, the report authors wrote, its oper­a­tions should be pro­moted and sus­tained by the gov­ern­ments.

The incom­ing new national plan in Spain and the new European Common Agricultural Policy are both tak­ing a step for­ward in this direc­tion, rec­og­niz­ing the rel­e­vance of the tra­di­tional orchards and allo­cat­ing funds and spe­cific poli­cies to favor the farm­ers,” Vilar said.

The report con­cluded that pub­lic fund­ing should be accom­pa­nied by pro­mot­ing the qual­i­ties of tra­di­tional extra vir­gin olive oils, by an increase in tree den­sity per hectare in the areas where water might be avail­able for irri­ga­tion and by pro­mot­ing ini­tia­tives such as oleo­tourism.

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