Climate Change Threatens Italy’s Olive Industry
Italy, one of the leading olive oil producers in the world, saw its olive harvest fall by more than half, to 185,000 tons, this past year. Olive trees in Italy have been weakened by extreme weather such as summer droughts, fall floods, early winters, heavy rainfall and spring ice waves in the past year and a half.
The New York Post reported that “[i]n February 2018, the country was hit by a cold snap that destroyed olive trees followed by an extreme heat wave last summer.”
Production in Italy’s southern region of Puglia, which makes up more than half of the total olive oil production, dropped by 65 percent.
Riccardo Valentini, a director of the Euro-Mediterranean Center for climate change said that sudden extreme weather, regardless of whether it is drying, warming, cooling, or freezing, can harm plant development. With the continuation of extreme weather, Italy may soon have to import its olive oil.
How important is olive oil to Italy? Cooperative Extension Farm Adviser for the University of California, Paul Vossen, stated that “the per capita consumption of olive oil in Italy is around 48 cups per person compared to about 2.5 cups per person in the US.” In Italy, 90 percent of olive oil is used for household purposes, and most of the olive oil consumed is extra virgin.
The decline in olive oil production has raised prices by 31 percent as of January 2019.
With over 500 diverse olive varieties, the olive oil industry is worth 3 billion euros to the Italian economy. Its major export markets are the US, Austria, Brazil, Canada, and China. In Canada, importers have already said they are paying more to purchase Italian olive oil, and are passing down the higher prices to Canadian consumers.
According to The Guardian, “Italy’s Coldiretti farmers’ union estimates that the cost of the olive oil collapse this year has already reached 1 billion euros.”
A report by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service emphasizes that about 20 percent of Italian consumers purchase their olive oil directly from the producers, and that quality is perceived as more important than price.
Olive trees are delicate, taking 15 to 20 years to reach their full capacity. The quality of Italian olive oil is unique due to the manner of olive harvesting and processing, in which the handpicked olives are pressed on the same day as picking. More than half of the production is extra virgin.
Some other members of the European Union, as well as Turkey and Tunisia, also have decreased projections for their production of olive oil. During the 2018-2019 season, it is estimated that Greece’s output will fall by 35 percent, Portugal’s output by almost 20 percent, and Turkey’s and Tunisia’s output by almost half.
Meanwhile, Spain, whose olive oil production is still going strong, is expected to close the difference for the shortage of the exports from the rest of the European Union.