Olive oil has been a staple of the Mediterranean Basin’s families for generations. This region is home to the olive tree, which grows naturally there. Olive oil has been as reliable as rain, wind, and sun for centuries.
However, the changing climate in the olive-producing regions makes harvesting trees more difficult and less predictable. Olive oil production is becoming more science-based as the weather becomes more unpredictable.
Olive trees are strong and naturally grow in the Mediterranean region. But producing the best olive oil means cultivating the best olives — and that’s hard. To prevent oil from quickly losing its freshness, olives must not be ripe enough when they are harvested. But they can’t be too ripe either.
Swings in weather patterns — too much rain, not enough rain, frost too early or too late — all affect the natural growing pattern of the olive, and create uncertainty for olive oil producers.
Those challenges didn’t stop Giuseppe Morisani and Skyler Mapes from getting into the business; they are facing the reality of climate change head on.
They never imagined getting into olive oil. Morisani’s parents owned a seven-hectare farm on the windswept hills of Calabria overlooking the Mediterranean. For centuries, oil extraction was a part of Calabria’s life. Many of these families were poor.
“My family made olive oil for 100 years, but we never had a business,” Morisani says.
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Today that’s changing, and like a growing number of young people in Italy, Morisani is returning to the land his family harvested for centuries. He and his American-born spouse are the entrepreneurs behind. EXAUCalabria-based manufacturer of high-end oil olives. Their product, which they plan to ship to Canada soon, was voted in 2020 as one of Oprah’s “favourite things.”
They love what they do, but point out that it’s also a lot of tough work.
“They have to be babysat,” says Mapes of newly planted olive trees. “You really have to take care of them.”
Climate change will not make this any easier.
Olive oil producers face many challenges due to changes in weather patterns.
“I think from a quality standpoint, farmers and producers will have to pay more attention than they ever did before,” says Selina Wang, an expert in food science at the University of California, Davis. “Before, you knew what to expect: you can harvest [the olives]You can also irrigate in a similar manner. But now we need to change that.”
In 2017, the first year of Morisani and Mapes’ operation in Calabria, on the southern tip of the Italian “boot,” an unusual blast of cold air struck the grove early in the harvest cycle.
Mild weather has been a problem for them in the past two winters. The olive tree needs consistently cold nights — but not too cold — to prevent a fruit fly known as Bactrocera oleae from ravaging the trees.
“If the winter is not cold and [the bugs] survive, they multiply themselves and attack the tree,” Morisani says. Morisani says that the fly can consume an entire tree in just a few days. “It’s incredible.”
“We don’t have the kind of rain [patterns] we used to have in the past,” he adds. “Either it’s too much rain — so there are these ‘water bombs,’ or it’s dry, completely dry.”
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California olive oil is also a growing industry. In California, erratic weather is also a concern.
“It should be colder, longer,” says Michael Fox, who runs California Olive RanchOne of the largest U.S. olive oil producers. He’s had three consistently off years, compounded last year by drought conditions.
Like other producers, his operation is adapting to new advances in soil science and regenerative techniques that allow the trees to live longer. “We’re trying to create a healthy bacterium environment in our soils,” Fox says.
“I put all my hope in my chemist and my biologist,” says EXAU’s co-founder, Morisani. “We check the lists all the time to see the nutrients that are missing on the tree.”
“What we want people to know is [that] olive oil is expensive,” Mapes adds. “It’s expensive for a reason.”
The olive economy
Canadians love olive oil.
Canada imported bottled extra virgin olive oil worth $213 million in 2020. The lion’s share of those imports, over $88 million worth, came from Italy, followed by Tunisia ($51 million), Spain ($50 million) and Greece ($13 million), according to Statistics Canada.
“It’s a $15-billion industry,” says Curtis Cord, who runs an industry publication called the Olive Oil TimesNewport, Rhode Island:
“But more important than that, [olive oil production] is the livelihood of three million people around the world.”
He stated that olive oil buyers often think of Italy or Greece when looking for olive oil. They should think about places like South America, Morocco, and Tunisia.
This country is becoming a more important player on the Canadian olive oil market. Over the past decade, imports from Tunisia have increased 70-fold. Tunisia is now a major exporter of olive oils for Canadian stores.
In 2014 academic paperFood scientists based in California, Italy and California predicted that a warming planet will open up more Mediterranean areas, notably North Africa, and some parts of Italy to olive harvesting.
Consequently, increased production equals higher yields. That’s the good news. The downside is that a global market flooded by olive oil can cause downward pressure on the prices of producers who are producing the product.
“Most of the concern for the growers is the very low olive prices,” says Luigi Ponti, a researcher with the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy, and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA). Ponti is also a member of an international team called MED-GOLDThis group is working to help farmers adapt their practices based upon the most recent climate data and projections.
“Olive oil,” Ponti says, “is being sold in large amounts in supermarkets. [Producers] don’t have a lot of power in determining prices and keeping a reasonable level of profit in what they do.”
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Freshness is a pleasant smell
According to Cord, the lack of education about what makes an olive oil great versus good or mediocre is a major problem that has been created by climate change.
“The quality of the olive oil greatly depends on the condition of the olives that were used to make it,” he told Global News.
The quality of extra virgin oil can also be determined by its smell. If there is too much cheap product flooding the market, and customers who can’t tell the difference, a product that barely meets the smell test when it leaves the factory floor risks ending up on the supermarket shelf.
“I care that you think you’re going to the store and getting this that’s going to fight inflammation and improve your health […] and the bottle that you bring home isn’t really going to do those things,” Cord says.
He believes that most customers know how to shop extra virgin olive oils. But beyond that, he fears, “people don’t know what this product is.”
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Extra virgin olive oils simply means that the oil is 100% unadulterated and healthy olives.
“We are talking about a fruit juice here,” Cord says.
“The better the fruit, the better the juice.”
The oil has not had its flavours or smells removed by heating it up. It has not been combined with vegetable oil or sunflower oils. Freshly harvested olive oil is the best extra virgin. Olive oil doesn’t need to be aged, unlike wine. Oil that has been sitting for weeks or even months begins to oxidize and tastes rancid.
Canada does not require that harvest dates be listed on olive oil bottles. “This information can be provided voluntarily as long as it is not false or misleading,” says the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in a statement to Global News.
Consumers, however, will be able tell the difference if they have the right information.
“Your nose should be able to tell you if the oil is fresh,” Wang says.
“You’re looking for something that smells fresh, green.” The oil should taste fruity; there should be some bitterness and pungency — indications that its nutrients, including the antioxidants, are present and intact.
Climate of uncertainty
Olives will not disappear from Italy, Spain, or Tunisia soon. But farmers’ relationship to the olive is changing everywhere — and becoming more complex.
“We will produce enough food, we are producing enough food, [and] we will continue to produce enough food,” says Dalhousie University “food professor” Sylvain Charlebois.
“The challenge,” he says “is predictability and how and where we’re producing food. That’s what climate change is doing.”
“I wouldn’t imagine Umbria without the olive tree,” says Ponti, the Italian researcher, referring to an olive-producing region of the country. “It’s very much a symbol for the region, and for Italy, and for the whole Mediterranean.”
But as the climate changes, it’s no longer a question of planting the trees and waiting for them to bear fruit as might have been the case in the past.
On the farm in Calabria, EXAU’s Mapes and Morisani have had water bombs, sea tornados and intense bursts of wind, all of which threaten the olives upon which their livelihood depends.
They, like other producers, believe that the devil is always in the details when it involves making olive oil.
“We don’t run our business; the olive trees run our business.”