Last updated: May 2016
European countries are some of the world’s top producers of olive oil and are renowned not only for the amount they produce but also the quality. Since 2014, poor crops have severely affected some of Europe’s main producers and production has fallen dramatically.
In 2014, it was estimated that Spanish production was down by nearly 50% compared to the previous year. In particular, unusual weather and a proliferation of insects and bacterial blight had devastated the harvests. The crisis was a big blow to the Southern European producers who are already struggling to emerge from dire economic straits. Conversely North African countries had bumper years, with Tunisia becoming the world’s second largest producer in 2014.
As with all the oil markets, it is impossible to know the country of origin for many of the brands as there is no legal requirement to disclose this information. The more widely available brands such as Filippo Berio and Napolina seem to make claims about their heritage on their websites. However, there is no specific information on where the olives used in the oils are actually grown. Both brands score poorly on the table, in particular under Environmental Reporting and Supply Chain Management.
According to market research company Mintel, supermarkets’ own-brand olive oil accounted for 47% of the market in 2014/15, followed by Napolina (21%) and Filippo Berio (20%). The remainder of the market is made up of smaller brands.
Mass production and environmental issues
A seminal 2001 report by the Worldwide Wildlife Foundation (WWF) and Birdlife International, ‘EU policies for olive farming: Unsustainable on all counts’, detailed how the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) had led to increased production of olive groves at the expense of the environment.
It stated: “Intensified olive farming is a major cause of one of the biggest environmental problems affecting the EU today: the widespread soil erosion and desertification in Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal. The expansion of irrigated olive production is increasing the over-exploitation of water resources that have already been eroded by other agricultural sectors.”
While the subsidy, which paid farmers for the amount they produced, was stopped in 2007 the effect of the industrialisation of olive growing has left its scars, and recent drought conditions experienced by olive-producing countries over the past years will no doubt have been intensified due to this environmental degradation.
Small scale farmers
On the whole though, most European olive farming is characterised by a large number of small operations. These are often traditional farms with older trees typically planted on upland terraces. The farmers manage their groves with few or no agrochemicals, less water and less machinery. Olives are picked off the ground by hand and the oil is extracted by grinding the olives in a millstone and press.
Organic olive oil
For consumers wanting to avoid intensive farming, look for the following organic certified olive oil: Equal Exchange, Zaytoun, Mr Organic, Biona, Clearspring, Essential, Raw Health, Suma, Meridian, Sunita, M&S, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Napolina and Tesco.
Zaytoun was founded in 2004 to support the resilience and livelihoods of Palestinian farmers under occupation through fairly trading their olive oil. It was founded after Heather Masoud and Cathi Pawson visited Palestine and accompanied Palestinian farmers harvesting their crops. Witnessing the Israeli occupation first hand, they sought to transform their anger at injustice into action, and Zaytoun was born soon after.
A fair trade company and member of the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO), Zaytoun also supports a model of agriculture that is naturally organic, sustainable and that is “rooted in time and tradition”.
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1 Olive Oil Times, 30th October 2015, Spain’s 2014-2015 Production Off by Half
2 The Guardian, 3th January 2015, Price of olive oil soaring after worst harvest in over a decade
3 Olive Oil Times, 27th January 2015, Tunisia Is the World’s Second Largest Olive Oil Producer, for Now
See our Product Guide to Cooking Oils which features ethical rankings of Vegetable, Rapeseed and Sunflower Oils.