Bizarre weather proved problematic for Italy’s most recent harvest season and it's affecting other olive-producing nations, too.

By Mike Pomranz
March 06, 2019
Silvia Bianchini/Getty Images

One of the inconvenient truths about climate change is that even if people don’t believe in it, we still have to deal with its impact. In the past year, we’ve discussed how climate change can affect and is affecting everything from wine to beer to truffles to shrimp. And now, you can add another beloved food item to that list: olive oil.

This season, Italy had what is likely its worst olive oil harvest in 25 years, a 57 percent drop from the year before, according to the Italian farming group Coldiretti. And Riccardo Valentini, the director of the Euro-Mediterranean Center for Climate Change, believes he knows the reason. “There are clear observational patterns that point to these types of weather extremes as the main drivers of [lower] food productivity,” he was quoted as saying by The Guardian. “In any direction, the extremes are important, and indeed, they are predicted by climate change scenarios.” In the past year and a half, Italy has faced seasonal anomalies like drought, floods, and freezing temperature reportedly costing the country’s olive oil industry well over $1 billion.

Poor harvests have also struck other countries this year, according to numbers from the European Commission: Greece’s production is estimated to be down 42 percent, Portugal’s down 20 percent. Meanwhile, bad seasons are about more than just overall percentages: “The big issue is not necessarily the quantity but the quality,” Vasilis Pyrgiotis of the Copa Cogeca farmers group told The Guardian. “Most Greek olive oil is considered ‘extra virgin’ but it is not certain, as time goes by, that this will continue.”

In fact, the only silver lining is that, if we are strictly talking bulk, olive oil isn’t totally in danger. Spain, by far, the world’s top producer of olive oil, produced nearly 1.26 million tons last harvest, according to the International Olive Council. The only other three European countries of note were Italy with 428,900 tons, Greece with 346,000 tons, and Portugal with 134,800 tons. (The U.S., meanwhile, produces just 16,000 tons.) This year, however, the European Commission predicts that Spain’s production could actually increase to 1.76 million tons — potentially accounting for as much as a third of global production. However, this growth in Spain has been caused by a shift to intensive olive trees which can have problems of their own, including less biodiversity. As a result, though you may not run out of olive oil, you could end up with fewer options to choose from.

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