IOC Leader Focuses on Expanding Cultivation, Fighting Climate Change

The International Olive Council director, Jaime Lillo, says the future of olive oil production lies beyond the Mediterranean.

IOC executive director Jaime Lillo (center)
By Paolo DeAndreis
Jan. 16, 2024 14:19 UTC
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IOC executive director Jaime Lillo (center)

Climate change is the major chal­lenge we face ahead,” Jaime Lillo López, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the International Olive Council (IOC), told Olive Oil Times.

I have requested the sup­port of the IOC’s mem­bers to start a per­ma­nent work­ing line on this mat­ter,” said Lillo, who served as deputy exec­u­tive direc­tor for more than seven years and took the helm of the orga­ni­za­tion on January 1st.

By diver­si­fy­ing regions of pro­duc­tion., we are also diver­si­fy­ing the risk of the impact that extreme cli­mate events have on over­all pro­duc­tion.- Jaime Lillo, exec­u­tive direc­tor, IOC

Established in 1959 with the International Olive Oil Agreement and under the aus­pices of the United Nations, the International Olive Council brings together the olive oil and table olive pro­duc­tion sec­tors. Currently, 19 coun­tries from four con­ti­nents are IOC mem­bers.

During a con­ver­sa­tion with Olive Oil Times, Lillo under­lined how sev­eral steps must be taken to cope with increas­ingly unpre­dictable weather con­di­tions.

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We need to facil­i­tate the adap­ta­tion of pro­duc­tion. The olive tree is a very resilient liv­ing organ­ism,” Lillo said.

For exam­ple, olive trees are grow­ing on the edge of the desert, and oth­ers have lived for thou­sands of years,” he added. They can sur­vive in extreme con­di­tions, given that they need less water or nutri­ents than other crops. However, we need to under­stand bet­ter the rela­tion of the dif­fer­ent genetic vari­eties of olive trees with the chang­ing envi­ron­ment.”

The IOC exec­u­tive direc­tor under­scored how olive farm­ing actively con­tributes to mit­i­gat­ing the impact of agri­cul­ture on the envi­ron­ment.

There is a role for olive cul­ti­va­tion within the strat­egy to com­bat cli­mate change,” Lillo said. Not every­body is aware that behind olive oil or table olives, there are more than 11 mil­lion hectares of olive trees, form­ing a kind of man­made for­est that removes 4.5 tons of car­bon diox­ide per hectare from the atmos­phere on a yearly basis.”

We have esti­mated that the pro­duc­tion of one liter of olive oil has a pos­i­tive car­bon bal­ance, reduc­ing more than 10 kilo­grams of car­bon diox­ide from the atmos­phere,” he added. Not only is this fact quite unique, but it is also con­sid­er­ably unknown.”

We are work­ing to facil­i­tate the right method­ol­ogy for esti­mat­ing the car­bon bal­ance at the farm level to encour­age bet­ter prac­tices and to facil­i­tate good com­mu­ni­ca­tion and recog­ni­tion, includ­ing access to the vol­un­tary mar­ket of car­bon cred­its,” Lillo explained.

According to Lillo, the IOC’s long-stand­ing com­mit­ment to stan­dard­iza­tion and research dri­ves the growth in olive oil pro­duc­tion out­side the olive tree’s cra­dle, the Mediterranean basin.

In my opin­ion, this trend will con­sol­i­date and is indeed great news for the future of olive oil,” Lillo said. There is a need for more olive oil, and qual­ity olive oil in par­tic­u­lar. If we take the last crop years, we observe that there is not enough olive oil to respond to the grow­ing global demand.”

We are already wit­ness­ing the impact of cli­mate change on olive oil pro­duc­tion. Particularly in the Mediterranean region, we have observed a ten­dency toward less rain­fall and higher tem­per­a­tures,” he added.

According to IOC’s fig­ures, global olive oil pro­duc­tion in the 2022/23 crop year reached 2.57 mil­lion tons and 2.41 mil­lion are expected for 2023/24. Global pro­duc­tion exceeded the three mil­lion ton thresh­old between 2017/18 and 2021/22.

By diver­si­fy­ing regions of pro­duc­tion, we are also diver­si­fy­ing the risk of the impact that extreme cli­mate events have on over­all pro­duc­tion,” Lillo said.

Lillo sees global coop­er­a­tion among pro­duc­ing coun­tries and stake­hold­ers as cru­cial to the sec­tor’s devel­op­ment.

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I do not see a con­flict or com­pe­ti­tion between the Mediterranean and other regions. On the con­trary, what I see is com­ple­men­tar­ity and syn­ergy,” Lillo said. Proof of this is the increase in the num­ber of lab­o­ra­to­ries and tast­ing pan­els rec­og­nized by the IOC, both in the Mediterranean and non-Mediterranean regions.”

In its efforts to expand the foot­print of the IOC beyond the Mediterranean basin, Lillo said the orga­ni­za­tion will host its first Southern Hemisphere edi­tions of the Mario Solinas Quality Awards in Uruguay in 2024.

By diver­si­fy­ing regions of pro­duc­tion, we have dif­fer­ent har­vest cal­en­dars, fla­vors and other speci­fici­ties that come to enrich the cat­e­gories of olive oil,” Lillo said.

At the moment, not only is global demand grow­ing faster than pro­duc­tion, but we should also not for­get that olive oil rep­re­sents about two per­cent of the global con­sump­tion of veg­etable oils,” he added. This means there is still room for growth, and all pro­duc­ing regions are wel­come.”

While olive oil con­sump­tion in many regions might depend on the prices of the prod­uct, the short­age of olive oil is unevenly affect­ing con­sump­tion trends.

It is an obvi­ous fact that the con­sump­tion of olive oil is lim­ited by the avail­abil­ity of olive oil pro­duced every crop year,” Lillo said.

We see con­sump­tion more affected in tra­di­tional pro­ducer coun­tries where olive oil con­sump­tion is high, around 10 kilo­grams per capita,” he added. In those Mediterranean coun­tries, olive oil is a prod­uct con­sumed on a daily basis, mak­ing it more sen­si­tive to price changes.”

Overall, con­sump­tion is mov­ing from the tra­di­tional Mediterranean region to other regions, such as the United States, Brazil, Japan, Canada, Australia or China,” Lillo con­tin­ued.

He said that inter­est in olive oil is increas­ing as peo­ple learn more about the health ben­e­fits and seek more sus­tain­able ways to eat and live.

We need to feed this process with the abun­dant sci­en­tific evi­dence we have in this regard, mak­ing it eas­ier for new con­sumers to dis­cover the prod­uct,” Lillo said. Once you try a good olive oil, you sim­ply don’t want to give it up.”

The grow­ing inter­est in liv­ing health­ier is also cou­pled with a greater con­cern regard­ing sus­tain­abil­ity and cli­mate change,” he added. Olive oil and table olives are in a priv­i­leged posi­tion when it comes to these mat­ters, on top of the fact that they are deli­cious.”

In recent years, the num­ber of IOC mem­ber states has grown. According to Lillo, such a trend under­scores the crit­i­cal role the orga­ni­za­tion is play­ing in sup­port­ing the devel­op­ment of the sec­tor on a global level.

I believe this enlarge­ment will con­tinue, as there are numer­ous advan­tages for coun­tries devel­op­ing their olive sec­tor or pro­tect­ing the rights of their olive oil con­sumers,” Lillo said.

He believes that one of the main rea­sons states join the IOC is to access the organization’s exper­tise in olive cul­ti­va­tion, table olive and olive oil pro­duc­tion.

We have the most knowl­edge­able experts com­ing from all over the world to dis­cuss the main chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties regard­ing genet­ics, cul­ti­va­tion prac­tices, stan­dards, qual­ity, sus­tain­abil­ity, cli­mate change, health, eco­nom­ics or mar­ket­ing, just to men­tion a few of our many areas of work,” Lillo said.

This knowl­edge exchange hap­pens for­mally dur­ing meet­ings or sem­i­nars, but there also exists a sub­stan­tial net­work of experts in per­ma­nent com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” he added. Hence, the IOC rep­re­sents a prime oppor­tu­nity for all pro­duc­ing regions to be con­nected to this vast and valu­able pool of knowl­edge.”

Lillo empha­sized that coop­er­a­tion among olive-grow­ing and non-olive-grow­ing coun­tries is essen­tial to respond to chal­lenges posed by cli­mate change.

This is how we face cur­rent chal­lenges at the IOC: we facil­i­tate the ongo­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion between the best experts from dif­fer­ent parts of the world across all spe­cial­ized fields,” he said.

As an exam­ple, I can refer to the inter­na­tional work­shop orga­nized last year on how the olive sec­tor can con­tribute to the solu­tion against cli­mate change, “ he added. On this occa­sion, the IOC wel­comed 300 expert par­tic­i­pants from 30 coun­tries.”

According to Lillo, the broad reach of activ­i­ties entices stake­hold­ers and insti­tu­tions beyond the Mediterranean basin.

Some coun­tries have tra­di­tion­ally not paid enough atten­tion to how to defend the rights of their olive oil con­sumers,” Lillo said. However, it is in their inter­est to ensure a pos­i­tive expe­ri­ence every time their con­sumers open a bot­tle of olive oil, regard­less of its ori­gin.”

When we look at the stan­dards for olive oil, one of our core activ­i­ties, the IOC works con­tin­u­ously in the revi­sion of para­me­ters and meth­ods of analy­sis,” he added. We believe that par­tic­i­pat­ing actively in this sci­en­tific work is highly inter­est­ing, and we always invite inter­ested coun­tries to par­tic­i­pate.”

Lillo said the value pro­vided by the IOC to all of its mem­bers has been enhanced by the acces­sion of non-Mediterranean coun­tries, such as Argentina and Uruguay in 2017, along with the more recent edi­tions of Georgia in 2019, Uzbekistan in 2021 and Saudi Arabia in 2023.

There are also other coun­tries cur­rently in the process of acces­sion, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Azerbaijan,” Lillo said. Other coun­tries that have shown inter­est in the IOC are par­tic­i­pat­ing as observers, as is the case of Brazil, Peru or the United States.”


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