New Olive Growing Models Would Promote Biodiversity in Olive Groves

José Eugenio Gutiérrez and his collaborators want to create a biodiversity certification for table olives and olive oils.

Dec. 7, 2017
By Daniel Dawson

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A new project in Spain aims to rein­tro­duce bio­di­ver­sity into olive groves across the European Union.

Environmental sci­en­tists and olive grow­ers hope to devise an olive grow­ing model and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion that pro­duces high qual­ity oils, but also does not dam­age the nat­ural ecosys­tem.

There are only very few ways to save our crops, and all of them depend on bio­di­ver­sity.- José Eugenio Gutiérrez

In Spain, monocrop­ping of olive groves began in the late 1980s when the Common Agricultural Process came into effect. The pol­icy called for the inten­si­fy­ing cul­ti­va­tion of these cash crops by elim­i­nat­ing every­thing that was not olive trees. This included the lib­eral appli­ca­tion of insec­ti­cides and her­bi­cides with­out regard to the later con­se­quences of these actions.

The pop­u­lar say­ing every lit­tle owl to its olive tree’ has become every lit­tle owl to its olive grove,’ ” said José Eugenio Gutiérrez, a biol­o­gist from the University of Jaén and coor­di­na­tor of the Olive Alive Project. This process has taken an enor­mous envi­ron­men­tal toll, caus­ing the loss of a good part of the bio­di­ver­sity of the olive grove and caus­ing exten­sive degra­da­tion of its ecosys­tem ser­vices.”

Gutiérrez and his col­lab­o­ra­tors want to cre­ate the cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for table olives and olive oils. Think some­thing like fair trade labels on bananas or cof­fee, but for bio­di­ver­sity.


This con­cern with bio­di­ver­sity comes at an uncer­tain time for mass-pro­duc­tion agri­cul­ture. According to Rob Dunn, a pro­fes­sor of applied ecol­ogy at North Carolina State University, the way in which agri­cul­ture — includ­ing olive tree cul­ti­va­tion — has been sim­pli­fied has put many crops at risk of extinc­tion from evolv­ing pathogens.

Nearly every crop in the world has under­gone a very sim­i­lar his­tory: domes­ti­cated in one region, then moved to another region, where it could escape its pests and pathogens,” Dunn wrote in his new book, Never Out Of Season. But these pests and pathogens, in our global world of air­plane flights and boat trips, are catch­ing up.”

Olives are one of these crops that are now at risk. Xylella fas­tidiosa out­breaks have been reported in north­ern Italy, south­ern France, Corsica and the Balearic Islands. Increasing bio­di­ver­sity in olive groves is the best way to mit­i­gate the effects of these dis­eases.

Once they do catch up, there are only very few ways to save our crops, and all of them depend on bio­di­ver­sity, whether in the wild or among tra­di­tional crop vari­eties,” Dunn wrote.

The Olive Alive Project plans to cre­ate a human­ized for­est” by using olive trees, which are an appro­pri­ate key­stone species for renew­ing bio­di­ver­sity in the region. They are a per­ma­nent for­est crop, native to the Mediterranean and cre­ate a nat­ural envi­ron­ment for numer­ous other species.

“(Biodiversity of olive groves) will be achieved by man­ag­ing the herba­ceous cover that are proven not to dimin­ish the pro­duc­tiv­ity of the olive grove,” Gutiérrez said. And restor­ing the unpro­duc­tive (for­est) zones, such as bor­ders, banks or roads, that were destroyed or aban­doned.”

These zones will be restored by grow­ing native shrubs, build­ing nest­ing boxes for birds and other wildlife as well as dig­ging ponds. Then native species can be rein­tro­duced to the areas where Gutiérrez believes they would thrive.

Gutiérrez said that this new cer­ti­fi­ca­tion will give an added value to the result­ing olive oils, which he believes European con­sumers are look­ing for.

There are more and more peo­ple, espe­cially in Europe, who are will­ing to do some­thing to con­serve the envi­ron­ment,” he said. “(We seek) to design the best strat­egy so that this oil has its niche in the mar­ket and the con­sumer knows how to value it.”

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