Thursday, 3 December 2009

Green and confused: Is olive oil production harming the environment?

Kieran Cooke

It seems we’re all in love with olive oil but I wonder about the environmental impact of its mass production. In southern Spain I’ve watched harvesting machines shaking the trunks of trees on vast plantations. It didn’t look pleasant. Am I being over sensitive?
Thanks to Jamie, Nigella and the rest of the cooking crowd, we are drizzling olive oil on our food in ever increasing quantities, with UK sales rising by nearly 50 per cent over the past ten years. While olive oil has a pleasant taste and is apparently beneficial to our overall health it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s also good for the environment.
In Spain there is an environmental disaster in the making brought about by growing demand and mistaken EU policies. Mediterranean countries produce about 90 per cent of the world’s olive oil. In the 1980s and 90s Brussels, under the Common Agricultural Policy, encouraged enormous increases in production. Traditional farming methods based on terraced smallholdings were phased out in favour of giant plantations similar to the one you saw in Spain.
Terraced trees are fed by natural water flow: animals graze on surrounding land, and bird and plant life flourish. The new plantations are soulless places. Stretching over hundreds of hectares, the trees are sprayed with chemicals and water is piped in, often from hundreds of kilometres away. A lack of ground cover means that parts of Andalusia in Spain and Puglia in Italy are turning to desert. The EU now encourages more balanced production methods but the damage has been done: it’s likely that the rate of desertification will increase as rainfall patterns change and drought hits more areas of the Mediterranean.
An added problem is the disposal of the waste associated with the olive oil production process. If the waste is not properly treated it can poison land and water courses: the careless disposal of it caused serious damage to the environment in Syria and Morocco, both big olive oil producers.
Then there is the transport issue. Most of the olive oil in your local supermarket will be labelled “Made in Italy” or “Bottled in Italy” or say it is “100 per cent Italian oil”. Yet Italy does not produce enough oil to satisfy even its own needs.
Italy specialises in marketing: it imports vast amounts of olive oil to be packaged up and re-exported. Spain now accounts for more than 40 per cent of global olive oil production. Day and night tankers en route from Spain to Italy thunder along the Côte D’Azur highway in southern France. After bottling and labelling, the oil is once again transported, at a considerable cost to the environment in the form of carbon emissions, to markets in Northern Europe, including the UK.
Maybe it’s time to cut back on the drizzling.
Kieran Cooke Send your eco-dilemmas to