The Coming Olive Oil Crisis

Climate change makes the Mediterranean basin unsuitable for olive production

Olive OilMany years from now, when our great-great-grandchildren study the history of climate change, they’ll be intrigued by some of the extinct agricultural products common in our lifetimes: wine grown in southern climates such as Spain and Italy; grain cultivation in South America; staple crops such as cassava and maize throughout Africa, and not least the famous olive oil of the Mediterranean basin.

We already have evidence that extreme weather is seriously affecting olive crops in southern Europe. According to the Olive Oil Times, global production was at a four-year low in 2020. Droughts cause by intense summer heat, coupled with severe winter storms, have almost wiped out olive cultivation in some regions; the wildfires of the past few years have hit California hard as well. On top of that, the unstable climate has increased attacks by predatory insects.

Is olive oil an endangered commodity? Well, yes and no. Olive trees can be planted in regions where they are less susceptible to climate extremes, although the trees will take seven or eight years to achieve full fruit production. The knowledge of how to cultivate them, not to mention the know-how needed to transform olives into oil, can’t be transplanted so easily—olive groves are traditionally passed on from one generation to another, along with all the techniques and tricks to make them thrive. And even if the industry could be replicated somewhere else, what about the human cost? The farmers who grow olives and produce oil aren’t the types of folks who can easily be shifted into real estate sales or internet technology.oil crisis

If that’s not bad enough, there’s the other olive oil crisis—not knowing whether the oil you buy is fraudulent or not. The European Union produces two-thirds of the world’s olive oil, with Italian Extra Virgin being the most sought-after and expensive. Yet the genuine article can be hard to come by: according to Forbes magazine, as much as 80% of the Italian olive oil in America may be fake. Adulteration by shippers is common. The USDA doesn’t inspect imported oils, and labeling standards are lax (the front label may say “Bottled in Italy,” while the oil’s true origin might only be disclosed in fine print on the back). Well-known brands such as Pompeian, Colavita, Sasso and Filippo Berio have failed lab tests; in some cases, products being sold as Extra Virgin weren’t even olive oil at all.

At some point, when the shifts in global farming caused by climate change are complete, people will still be buying olive oil. However, many things will be lost: the mystique of the small, multi-generational farmer, the healthful effects of the Mediterranean diet, and most of all the romantic connection between the land and its produce. A little romance is not a bad thing, even at the expense of the truth, and hopefully our great-great-grandchildren will understand.


Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.

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