The Olive Oil Edition
On business, conservation, and ecosystems
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Eurof Uppington (EU) used to run hedge fund money until he came to his senses. Now he worries about how we eat, and sells olive oil from family farmers in Greece to restaurants in Switzerland and France. He has a startup, Amfora Sarl, based in Geneva (www.amforahome.ch).
Eurof here. Overestimating the importance of olive oil in the Mediterranean might, I suppose, be possible. But without it, all the stuff Greeks invented would have had to come from somewhere else. Olive oil was a pillar of the ancient Phoenician, Minoan, Greek, and Roman civilizations and the original trading commodity: the first recorded derivative transaction, in 600 BC, speculated in olive oil. Today 1 billion olive trees cover Greece, Italy, Spain, the Levant, and North Africa, creating landscape, ecology, tradition, identity, history, and 2.5 million tons of oil.
Olive oil is a $10 billion a year global industry and the only global farm product that never industrialized. It’s mostly still small farmers, using methods unchanged for centuries, with minimal fertilizer and pesticide. This is changing, and fast. Since the Mediterranean diet came to prominence in the 80s and 90s, a new way of producing olives—so-called “high density” (HD) and “super high density” (SHD) cultivation—has been taking over. Today these methods account for more than 30% of the world’s production. The HD and SHD approaches now dominate in Spain, Tunisia, and Portugal. The effects on rural life and the environment in the Mediterranean, which still accounts for 95% of world production, have been profound.
Why is this interesting?
Olive trees are drought-resistant, long-lived, and incredibly efficient. Sufficiently distant from each other, they need no inputs to produce fruit, and with a bit of pruning will yield you a living. It’s classic regenerative agriculture.
HD production shrank the gaps between trees and introduced both synthetic fertilizer and irrigation to the growing process. A hectare that once held 500 trees could suddenly stock 2,000. While farmers needed to spend additional money on pesticides and herbicides, the step up in productivity was game-changing, particularly in terms of labor. With regular height and spacing between trees, over-the-row machines replaced the human hands who onced pruned, tended, and harvested.
Throughout Spain, and particularly Andalucia, old growth trees were ripped up to make way for the new dense rows. Local, national, and European subsidies accelerated the transformation—blenders, brands, and supermarkets loved the uniform nature of the HD product. Farms grew bigger and integrated vertically, building modern mills on-site. Now able to better control processing, olive oil quality improved further.
The effect on the countryside, however, was disastrous. Without farm jobs and local mills, villages died. Traditional farmers found their ecosystem disappearing and were forced to abandon farms, sell up, or join the HD party. The results have seen the once populous Spanish countryside denuded of people. Today Spain makes almost twice as much olive oil as Greece and Italy combined, with half the number of farmers.
Environmental impacts were worse. Nitrate runoffs destroyed water quality throughout southern Spain and irrigation schemes have depleted water tables, threatening desertification. Biodiversity has collapsed and soil erosion has increased as terraces fail. Simply put, the land hasn’t been able to cope.
The secondary effects have spread throughout the Mediterranean. Irrigation from a new dam in Alentejo enabled HD farming in Portugal, which has overtaken Greece to be the third biggest olive-producing country in the world. Tunisia, an enthusiastic adopter, is also climbing the rankings fast. From 2015, as this new HD production came online, olive oil prices have collapsed and the effects have been felt by rural populations throughout the Mediterranean.
All is not lost yet, and some of us (myself included) are actively trying to find new ways to ensure these traditional methods and their amazing outputs aren’t lost to history with a host of unintended consequences tumbling behind. My company, Amfora, matches traditional farmers with restaurants: buying their olive oil at 2-3x the local price and selling in bulk. “Adopt a tree” schemes attempt to preserve old-growth trees, EU agricultural policies are changing to favor smaller producers, and many HD growers have adopted what Michael Pollen calls “industrial organic”, which mitigates runoff and biodiversity loss.
There are no winners to this story yet. It’s probably too late for much of Spain. The best we can do now is try to preserve what is left in the rest of the Mediterranean, but for that to happen we need to build a system where small farmers can be paid fairly for the products they create, as well as the ecosystem services they perform for us all. This will involve a mindset change for the industry, for consumers, and creating a parallel, regenerative and ethical food system alongside our current destructive one, which can slowly absorb and replace it.
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Thanks for reading,
Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Eurof (EU)
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