The World's Commercial Olive Groves Are Shrinking

The shift to super-intensive cultivation, low prices for olives and olive oil, and the surplus on the international market were identified as factors that led to the reversal of a decades-long trend.

Oct. 17, 2019
By Lisa Anderson

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For the first time in 22 years, the global sur­face area of olive trees that are cul­ti­vated for com­mer­cial pur­poses has decreased.

The largest drop has been noted in Italy, Spain, Greece, Jordan and Syria, all of which are coun­tries where the inter­nal con­sump­tion of olives and olive oil have decreased.

Prices are the incen­tive for crop devel­op­ment… As prices improve and the crop becomes more prof­itable, the trend may change.- Jorge Enrique Pereira Benítez

The inter­na­tional olive cul­ti­va­tion sur­face area has grown over the last two decades with more than a mil­lion hectares (2.47 mil­lion acres), mainly with mod­ern cul­ti­va­tion – inten­sive and super-inten­sive – and the coun­tries in which olives are cul­ti­vated grew from 46 to 65,” Juan Vilar Hernández, an indus­try ana­lyst and pro­fes­sor at the University of Jaén, told Olive Oil Times.

In 22 years, this is the first year in which the inter­na­tional olive tree sur­face decreased,” he added.

See Also:Olive Tree Cultivation News

Vilar and Jorge Enrique Pereira Benítez, an olive oil con­sul­tant and pro­fes­sor of agron­omy, found this rever­sal in the decades-long trend while updat­ing their co-authored olive cul­ti­va­tion man­ual, International Olive Growing: Worldwide Analysis and Summary.

Vilar clar­i­fied that for the pur­poses of the study, the global sur­face area is where olive trees are cul­ti­vated for com­mer­cial pur­poses. Olive trees that have been aban­doned or not used for com­mer­cial pur­poses are not included in the inter­na­tional tree sur­face area fig­ure, even if the trees are still alive.


One of the main rea­sons for the shrink­ing sur­face area is that grow­ers are switch­ing to more prof­itable options, such as grow­ing almond and wal­nut trees.

Now (that) inter­na­tional olivi­cul­ture is a mature mar­ket… com­pa­nies are increas­ing the sur­face in which they are cul­ti­vat­ing almond trees,” he said.

Vilar expects the mar­ket for almonds to con­tinue increas­ing for the next eight to 10 years.

The sec­ond fac­tor that Vilar and Pereira iden­ti­fied as caus­ing the world’s com­mer­cial olive groves to shrink is that mod­ern olive tree cul­ti­va­tion is over­tak­ing tra­di­tional olivi­cul­ture.

Traditional olive cul­ti­va­tion – which makes up 70 per­cent of the global olive tree sur­face area – can­not com­pete with inten­sive and super-inten­sive olive tree cul­ti­va­tion.

More than 70 per­cent of the inter­na­tional olive tree sur­face is los­ing money,” Vilar said.

The third rea­son for the decrease that the pair iden­ti­fied is that the inter­na­tional stock of olive oil in the world is at its high­est point ever.

When the man­ual was final­ized in 2018, 58 olive-grow­ing coun­tries were noted. Vilar said that despite the decrease of the global sur­face area, the num­ber of olive-grow­ing coun­tries, which were noted by the more than 300 researchers that con­tributed to the man­ual, has increased to 65 coun­tries this year.

San Marino, Canada, Eritrea, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Ukraine are among the most recent coun­tries to be added.

Pereira said that there was not a sud­den increase in olive pro­duc­ing coun­tries. In fact, some of these coun­tries have been grow­ing olive trees for a few years, but the researchers for the ref­er­ence guide only recently became aware of them.

He added that in some parts of the world, more com­mer­cial olive groves are also being grown, such as in North Africa, China, the United States and Brazil.

Vilar explained that the gen­eral increase in olive grow­ing coun­tries is due to the avail­abil­ity of cheap land for agri­cul­ture out­side of Europe.

None of the largest olive tree farms are in Europe,” he said.

The sheer scale of these farms cou­pled with the low cost of pro­duc­tion made them highly prof­itable. Vilar added that in some of these newly minted olive grove hubs olivi­cul­ture is intro­duced by the peo­ple mov­ing from coun­tries, such as Greece, Spain and Italy.

One of the fac­tors that the guide does not iden­tify is impact­ing global olive grove sur­face area was Xylella fas­tidiosa, in spite of the havoc it has brought to Puglia.

The influ­ence of Xylella fas­tidiosa is mainly in the south of Italy,” Vilar said.

He added that Xylella poses a more seri­ous threat when olive trees are aban­doned. These give the insect vec­tors the oppor­tu­nity to spread the dis­ease from olive tree to olive tree unim­peded, which he said is a real risk.

However, Pereira said that Xylella played a direct role in the decrease of the olive grove area in Italy.

Between five and eight mil­lion olive trees have been lost in the Puglia region,” he said, which together with the cli­matic effects, has led to the pro­duc­tion of olive oil that is 40 per­cent lower than pre­vi­ous years.”

Looking to the future, both Pereira said that this decrease in com­mer­cial olive grove sur­face area will last as long as olive oil prices remain low in major pro­duc­ing coun­tries, such as Spain.

Prices are the incen­tive for crop devel­op­ment,” Pereira said. The trend in Spain is low prices, so there are pro­duc­ers who aban­don olive groves. As prices improve and the crop becomes more prof­itable, the trend may change.”

Vilar added that he believes the decrease in the global olive sur­face area is tem­po­rary.

In tra­di­tional olive-grow­ing coun­tries many olive farm­ers are either retired peo­ple or peo­ple with other jobs who farm com­mer­cially over week­ends and hol­i­days,” he said.

When prices for olive prod­ucts recover, these farm­ers will once again start cul­ti­vat­ing their groves,” he added. “[However], some groves, for instance, those located in the moun­tain and so forth, will be per­ma­nently aban­doned.”

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