Olive harvesting and bird deaths

Alex Crumbie investigates the death of birds in relation to the harvesting of olives with vacuum machines. He also gives advice on what consumers should do to avoid funding this method.

In May 2019 research from Portugal’s Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests estimated that millions of birds were being killed around the Mediterranean as a result of super-intensive, night-time olive harvesting.

Night-time harvesting is done because the cool temperatures better preserve the olive flavours. However, the super-intensive machines used suck up countless numbers of birds, many of which use the trees as a resting place while on their migratory journey between Europe and North Africa. 

It has been estimated that in Andalusia 2.6 million birds die each year due to this method of harvesting, while in Portugal the number is 96,000. 

Similar practices are also used elsewhere in Europe such as France and Italy, though bird death numbers there are not currently known.
 

Which oil is bird friendly?

Ethical Consumer contacted all the companies that we had examined in our recent Olive Oil guide to ask if they could guarantee that their olive oil was not made using the super-intensive, night-time harvesting methods that led to great numbers of bird deaths.

The following table show companies that responded to our question.

Brand Bird-friendly guarantee?
Aldi No
Asda No - currently investigating suppliers
Biona Yes
Bio Planete Yes
Clearspring Yes
Co-op No - currently investigating suppliers
Equal Exchange Yes
Essential Yes
Hellenic Sun Yes
Infinity Foods Yes
Marks and Spencer Yes
Mr Organic Yes
Morrisons Probably - initial enquiries indicate yes, but Morrisons is currently working with suppliers to guarantee this is not the case. 
Napolina/Olivio (Princes Group) No* currently investigating suppliers.
Organico Yes
Sainsbury's Yes
Suma Yes
Sunita Yes
Tesco No* - currently investigating suppliers
Waitrose Yes
Zaytoun Yes

*These companies stated that any super-intensive nocturnal harvesting methods found in their supply chains would be stopped before next harvesting season.

Bird-Friendly brands not featured in our olive oil guide

The following brands were not covered in our guide, but have contacted us stating that they are do not use the harvesting methods in question and are therefore bird-friendly.

    • Epikouros
    • Honest Toil
    • La Bio Idea 
    • Lesbian Donkey
    • Mani
    • Rayners

Does buying organic guarantee the oil is bird-friendly?

Ethical Consumer contacted the Soil Association about the issue, to see if their organic stamp guaranteed the exclusion of super-intensive nocturnal harvesting methods. The simple answer: no. 

According to the Soil Association, “The organic approach favours the use of traditional methods and the use of people, not machines.” 
However, this is no guarantee that machine methods have not been used. The Soil Association states: “our standards do not exclude the use of heavy machinery in organic farming.”

The Association also gave the following statement:

“The main thing to note is that these methods are unlikely to comply with basic EU legislation on protection of birds. The Soil Association accreditation means that farms will have been subject to an additional check for compliance with organic legislation, which as mentioned, includes specific provisions on protection of the environment. So if people want assurance on the issue, organic is probably as good as they can get.”

Do these methods contravene EU legislation?

Ethical Consumer contacted an EU representative to find out whether the super-intensive nocturnal harvesting methods went against EU legislation, such as the Bird Directive. The following statement was received: 

“All wild bird species naturally occurring in the EU are strictly protected by EU legislation... If high-intensity olive harvesting during night hours is known to lead to the killing or to significant disturbance of birds, there is a duty for the competent authorities in those member states to address this problem under provisions set out in the Conservation of Wild Birds Directive.”

The representative stated that the EU is currently discussing the issues with the Member States so that the practice can be properly addressed.

Conclusions: what should consumers do now?

In order to make sure you are not buying olive oil that uses super-intensive night-time harvesting, we recommend you buy from the companies in the table above that guaranteed their olive oil was not made using these methods. Most of these companies were also listed as overall Best Buys in our Olive Oil guide for their social and environmental responsibility over a wide range of issues.

We also recommend you buy organic. Although it does not guarantee the exclusion of heavy machinery in olive harvesting, it means that its use is unlikely. Buying organic also means that other sustainability factors have been addressed, for example, that no toxic pesticides and herbicides have been used.

Greece

Through our investigations, it has been repeatedly stated that the harvesting techniques in question are not used in Greece.

For example, in an email to Ethical Consumer, Labis Christopoulos, an agronomist at Epikouros Organic Products stated, “In Greece, in general, we do not use the night harvest method.” While we cannot guarantee that this is true of all olive oils produced in Greece, this statement was echoed by many Greek producers. Organic oil from Greece is therefore almost certainly all ‘bird-friendly.’

Going forward

Many companies have stated that they will be working with suppliers to stop the practice of super-intensive nocturnal olive harvesting.

It also looks likely that the EU will be looking to address this issue at a higher level. Ideally, they will ban the practice outright.

We will keep you informed on future developments around this issue.

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