Study in Spain Confirms Olive Tree as Strategic Crop to Recover Biodiversity

Olive groves have lost a lot of their biodiversity, but according to new findings of a study in Andalusia, there still are opportunities for recovery.

La Olivilla
Oct. 16, 2018
By Rosa Gonzalez-Lamas
La Olivilla

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The dis­cov­ery of a new botan­i­cal species dur­ing a research study con­ducted in Andalusia attests that even though olive groves have lost a lot of their bio­di­ver­sity in the past few decades, they remain a solid flora and fauna foun­da­tion that makes them an ideal plat­form to recover bio­di­ver­sity, an added-value of olive and olive oil production.

The find­ings were part of Olive Alive’s LIFE Project, an ini­tia­tive coor­di­nated by SEO/BirdLife and con­ducted by the University of Jaén and Spain’s Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) through 40 olive groves in 20 Andalusian locations. 

The study, results were unveiled this month, was con­ceived to quan­tify diver­sity as a basis for future assess­ments of the impact of actions imple­mented to recover bio­di­ver­sity. It demon­strated that bio­di­ver­sity can be a good invest­ment that can con­tribute to a greater prof­itabil­ity in olive cul­ti­va­tion and oil pro­duc­tion and must, there­fore, be con­sid­ered when devel­op­ing new agri­cul­tural poli­cies and practices. 

Linaria qar­to­ben­sis was the botan­i­cal species dis­cov­ered in an olive grove in Córdoba. It dis­plays dif­fer­ent traits than other Linaria species, such as shape, color and seeds, and has now been included in Spanish and global reg­istries. A total of 549 herba­ceous species and 137 woody species were reg­is­tered through the study. 

Grove at La Olivilla

On the ani­mal side, 165 bird species from 199 gen­era were iden­ti­fied dur­ing the study. Olive groves serve as their habi­tat for nest­ing, hiber­na­tion or as tran­sit dur­ing migra­tion. Twenty-six of the species had some sort of men­aced sta­tus, includ­ing two in dan­ger of extinc­tion: red alza­cola and great bus­tard (Otis tarda.) One hun­dred nine­teen pol­li­na­tor insects and 58 ant species were also reg­is­tered, one among which appears to be a species con­sid­ered extinct since 1960, Aphaenogaster gemella.

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The fig­ures rep­re­sent an aver­age between all olive groves stud­ied as bio­di­ver­sity is not homoge­nous through them all, vary­ing depend­ing on the man­age­ment of soil, the appli­ca­tion of con­ven­tional or bio­log­i­cal agri­cul­ture prac­tices, the size of the plots, and the com­plex­ity of the landscape. 

Simple land­scapes were those where olive trees pre­dom­i­nated with a lim­ited pres­ence of other crops; land­scapes of inter­me­di­ate com­plex­ity were those in which olive trees are inter­twined with other crops and other veg­e­ta­tive ele­ments; and com­plex land­scapes were places where olive groves were not nec­es­sar­ily dom­i­nant, coex­ist­ing with a great array of other veg­e­tal elements. 

Olive groves were sam­pled and indexed in terms of their exten­sion, cul­ti­va­tion meth­ods, func­tional diver­sity, het­ero­gene­ity, rela­tion­ship with the land­scape, and value for preser­va­tion. A list of species, gen­era and fam­i­lies of each group of organ­isms used as bio­di­ver­sity indi­ca­tors was cre­ated for each grove sam­pled and maps delin­eat­ing the uses of each ter­ri­tory were also pre­pared. The aggre­gate sam­ple rep­re­sented a lit­tle less than 10,000 hectares from a total olive grove sur­face of 1.5 mil­lion hectares in Andalusia. Samples were obtained from April 2016 through May 2017.

The loss of bio­di­ver­sity in Spain began in the late 1980s when mass-pro­duc­tion agri­cul­tural prac­tices were adopted because of the country’s incor­po­ra­tion into the European Union’s Common Agrarian Policy. This sim­pli­fied cul­ti­va­tion elim­i­nated all ele­ments not strictly related to olive trees, a destruc­tion accom­plished mostly with pes­ti­cides and her­bi­cides. This not only con­tributed to a sig­nif­i­cant loss of bio­di­ver­sity but over time led to expos­ing crops to evolv­ing pathogens.

Biodiversity con­tributes to soil fer­til­ity and to con­trol ero­sion, plagues, and dis­eases. Olive Alive seeks to rein­tro­duce bio­di­ver­sity into olive groves to increase their prof­itabil­ity by devis­ing grow­ing mod­els that help improve the qual­ity of olive oils and are com­pat­i­ble with the preser­va­tion of ecosystems. 

Some actions pro­posed towards this end include the man­age­ment of herba­ceous cov­ers and the restora­tion of unpro­duc­tive zones through the plant­ing of spe­cific trees, bushes, and herbs, along with the cre­ation of func­tional ele­ments to shel­ter ani­mals favor­able to biodiversity.

Earlier this 2018, SEO/BirdLife began its par­tic­i­pa­tion in a two-year col­lab­o­ra­tive project that will study herba­ceous cov­ers of native species in olive groves, in an attempt to trans­fer knowl­edge about sus­tain­able prac­tices through demon­stra­tive tri­als in the groves, also con­sol­i­dat­ing agro­nom­i­cal tools for soil man­age­ment that can help con­trol ero­sion, main­tain fer­til­ity and pre­serve biodiversity.

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