ABC News Explores Effects of Climate Change on Italian Olive Oil Production

ABC news chief meteorologist Ginger Zee traveled with her crew through Italy to talk about climate change with producers and scientists during the 2016 harvest.

Jan. 24, 2018
By Ylenia Granitto

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As cli­mate change has emerged among the most urgent global chal­lenges, ABC News set out to see how global warm­ing and its some of its side effects impact Italian olive oil pro­duc­tion in its Food Forecast series.

No mat­ter what chal­lenge they are faced with, they will sur­vive because of their pas­sion for that age-old tra­di­tion.- Ginger Zee, ABC News

The jour­ney is intro­duced by feeds from a drone fly­ing over an olive grove in Agrigento, where Olio Taibi pro­duces an award-win­ning mono­va­ri­etal of Nocellara del Belice. 

Olive Oil Times con­sulted ABC News for the episode of the series hosted by ABC News chief mete­o­rol­o­gist Ginger Zee, who trav­eled with her crew through the Mediterranean coun­try to meet pro­duc­ers and sci­en­tists dur­ing the 2016 harvest.

As Zee said, over the past few years across the globe, but defin­i­tively in Italy, there have been major chal­lenges which led to a decrease in pro­duc­tion, most of which were due to the weather. 

What we are see­ing right now in Italy is the effect of drought,” Olive Oil Times pub­lisher Curtis Cord observed in an inter­view last year at the International Culinary Center. Outbreaks of pests such as the olive fruit fly and other dis­eases are mainly caused by adverse cli­matic con­di­tions — a key player in the never-end­ing bat­tle” faced by producers.

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Despite the dis­rup­tive effects of cli­mate and count­less other head­winds, Italian pro­duc­ers nev­er­the­less man­age to main­tain qual­ity at the high­est levels. 

It is har­vest time and the ABC News cam­era pans over an orchard in Tuscany, where olives are picked and deliv­ered to the mill. At Olio del Colle, extra vir­gin olive oil pours out of the steel tube which com­pletes the top-of-the-line process in full swing. I’ve defin­i­tively never had fresh olive oil until right now,” Zee reveals — the sound of the machin­ery in the back­ground — while savor­ing a drib­ble extra vir­gin olive oil on a slice of bread with the pro­ducer Flavia Paoletti. 

From the tree to your table extra vir­gin olive oil should be sim­ple,” Ginger Zee affirms. Extra vir­gin olive oil has to be free of what we call defects,” Cord echoes back in New York, where they taste an intense fruity extra vir­gin olive oil which expresses itself with a pun­gent sensation. 

There is also the health aspect of it, which is really the most impor­tant part,” Cord points out. We pay more for extra vir­gin olive oil because we expect that it has a cer­tain taste and cer­tain health qualities.” 

From low­er­ing the risk of heart dis­eases to ben­e­fit­ing lev­els of blood sug­ars, the health claims are unde­ni­able,” Zee explains onsite at a Brooklyn olive oil retailer, O‑Live.

The next stop in Italy is Santa Téa farm, where this reporter meets the group to which I pro­vided some logis­ti­cal sup­port. Serena and Giorgio Gonnelli take us to groves located on the hills between Florence and Siena to expe­ri­ence the fever­ish activ­ity that is tak­ing place among trees of Leccino, Frantoio, Moraiolo, Correggiolo and Leccio del Corno. 

ABC News chief meteorologist Ginger Zee at Santa Tea farm in Tuscany (Phtoto: Ylenia Granitto)

Olives are col­lected with elec­tric rakes with car­bon fiber arms and crushed in a few hours. I do think peo­ple have no idea how much effort and money it costs,” Zee real­izes after using the har­vest tool and gath­er­ing olives with the nets with the group of workers. 

It takes time, labor costs and pro­duc­tion costs. That is why a bot­tle of authen­tic extra vir­gin olive oil can­not be cheap,” Gonnelli observes. However, I think that the mar­ket is chang­ing, and con­sumer are get­ting closer and closer to olive oil,” the pro­ducer considers. 

At the ancient mill of the farm that dates back to 1426 you could still use gran­ite mill­stones to crush olives, but despite the fas­ci­na­tion with this antique machine, high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil is now pro­duced with the lat­est technology. 

Two years ago, the sea­son started with ideal cli­matic con­di­tions which Zee refers to with an Olive Oil Times report of that period; but then sum­mer turned out to be very hot and humid and pro­duc­tion decreased. The weather is chang­ing and it’s chang­ing very fast,” Gonnelli concludes. 

Luigi Ponti, ento­mol­o­gist at ENEA Casaccia Research Center, says the hope is that this one (2016/2017) will be a good sea­son, based on the prin­ci­ple of bio­log­i­cal alter­na­tion. The olive fruit fly is a pest that is mostly dri­ven by weather,” he affirms. In gen­eral, you have nat­ural ene­mies which con­trol the pop­u­la­tion of agri­cul­tural pests, but in this case, that is not what hap­pens because it is a very pro­lific ani­mal. There isn’t a nat­ural enemy that is effec­tive enough.” 

Whatever affects the fly is weather-related, as Ponti evi­denced in a study esti­mat­ing that by 2060 an increase in tem­per­a­ture in the Mediterranean would lead to an incre­men­tal increase of olive oil pro­duc­tion in Italy and France but also to a growth of olive fly infestations. 

If you want to make qual­ity you’ve got to spend,” points out Marina Colonna, inter­viewed by the ABC News team at her farm in Molise. She recently planted new olive trees of local vari­eties and con­tin­ues to pro­duce high-qual­ity olive oil despite the threat of the olive fruit fly and other pests. 

Colonna presents her olive trees bear­ing healthy fruits. If you don’t want to spend, then it is your risk. And today, you can­not risk, because cli­mate change is so much, that you have to be really care­ful,” she con­tin­ues. You have to watch your trees all the time — if you care for them. If you don’t care… any­thing can hap­pen,” Colonna declares. 

Probably related to effects of cli­mate, Xylella fas­tidiosa is a big issue” with plenty of con­tro­versy sur­round­ing how to deal with it, Zee notes. 

It is a multi-fac­to­r­ial thing where weather, soil fer­til­ity and fungi play a role,” Ponti explains. Now, we are see­ing its spread in Corsica and Majorca and it has been found in other places,” Cord remarks. It is some­thing that the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity and the agri­cul­tural com­mu­nity is pay­ing atten­tion to. And hope­fully, they will be able to pre­vent this seri­ous out­break. But, who knows.” 

Despite these cir­cum­stances, the price of olive oil might not be affected as directly as most peo­ple think due to the stocks that larger pro­duc­ers hold to be released when the mar­ket con­di­tions require, Cord explains. But this leads to old olive oil in the mar­ket that often isn’t as fresh as the labels indi­cate. There is a har­vest date, and if you can find that, that’s the best indi­ca­tion for the true shelf-life or the true fresh­ness,” Cord recommends. 

More and more pro­duc­ers are putting the har­vest date on the bot­tle, Cord sug­gests as he and Zee are sur­rounded by olive oil bot­tles at a Fairway Market in Chelsea. This at least give you a leg up and it is bet­ter­ing your chance of actu­ally get­ting a high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil. At least, it makes sure it is fresh. Once you do that, then you learn how to taste it.” 

Then, back at the Culinary Center, he pours some olive oil in two blue glasses that, accord­ing to the label, should be an extra vir­gin olive oil but turns out to be ran­cid. What you have here is some­thing very typ­i­cal that most of us are eat­ing every day,” says Cord. 

The solu­tion is sim­ple and lies in pur­chas­ing high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oils, just like those made by the pro­duc­ers that Zee met dur­ing this jour­ney through Italy, which are able despite the dif­fi­cul­ties to achieve excellence. 

For me, I was lucky enough to expe­ri­ence the taste of real extra vir­gin olive oil in Italy, and after my jour­ney, real­ized that, no mat­ter what chal­lenge they are faced with, they will sur­vive because of their pas­sion for that age-old tra­di­tion,” Zee con­cludes, while hav­ing a slice of bread with a drib­ble of high-qual­ity extra vir­gin olive oil.


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