Oil crisis: How olive farmers are adapting to climate change to preserve a cultural commodity

Changing weather patterns are making it harder to grow olives across Europe, increasing consumer prices and threatening growers’ livelihoods. As temperatures rise, what can be done to support this ancient agricultural industry?
Olive harvest in Puglia, Italy | Photo: Alamy

By Raluca Besliu

Raluca is a freelance reporter based in Belgium

15 Feb 2024

To be able to flower in the spring and yield the kilos of plump, juicy green fruits needed to press a single bottle of extra virgin oil, olive trees require exposure to temperatures of around five to 15C during the colder months of the year.      

In Europe, warmer winters now pose a threat to olive and olive-oil production, not only jeopardising the millions of livelihoods dependent on these industries across the Mediterranean region, but also affecting consumers, who face steeply rising prices.  

“My father is 90 years old and has never seen a crop this bad in his entire life,” Vasilis Dimas, a fifth-generation olive farmer, tells The Parliament. Dimas, who has a 3,000-tree orchard in the Greek region of Corinthia, estimates he lost about 60 per cent of his 2023 to 2024 harvest. The olive harvest season spans two calendar years, typically between October and February.   

There is no magical wand to stop climate change… The only thing we can do is take measures to alleviate its impact.

Beyond Greece, the crisis is also affecting other key olive oil-producing countries in Europe, such as Spain and Italy. For the 2022 to 2023 harvest, overall European Union olive-oil production declined by 26 per cent compared to the previous year. This year, it is expected to drop by 39 per cent, the lowest level since the mid-1990s.  

“This might not be merely a bad year; it could herald the onset of a bad future,” says Dr Ilias Kalfas, a Greek agronomist and researcher at the American Farm School in Thessaloniki, who studies the effects of climate change on olive trees.   

High temperatures, less rain  

The Mediterranean Basin is one of the regions expected to be most affected by climate change in the future: studies suggest temperatures could increase by up to 7C over the next 80 years, or almost 0.9C per decade.  

In addition to pushing regional temperatures up, climate change is also reducing rainfall levels in southern Europe. A lack of rain makes it harder for olive trees to flower and bear fruit in spring. A 2023 study authored by Kalfas suggested that, without irrigation, olive crops on the Greek island of Halkidiki may no longer be economically sustainable from 2031 onward.  

Climate change is also thought to be impacting the prevalence of invasive insects that love to feast on the green fruit – such as the olive fruit fly and olive moth. Changing weather patterns have been found to affect the life cycle of plant-eating pests, as well as their migratory behaviour and interactions with natural enemies — all of which may enable them to multiply more quickly in certain regions, affecting some local pest populations.   

 “There is no magical wand to stop climate change; it is here to stay,” Kalfas says. “The only thing we can do is take measures to alleviate its impact, not reverse it."  

Although experts in soil management and crop production have sounded the alarm about climate change’s potentially catastrophic impact on olive production, Olof Gill, a Commission spokesperson for trade and agriculture, says, “it is too early to consider that the production potential is on a permanent decline.” He points to Spain’s record 1.8m tonne production in the 2018 to 2019 harvest, which “required the EU to activate support from private storage.”   

Still, Gill says the Commission recognises what’s at stake. “We fully understand the importance of olive cultivation for some Member States, and its crucial role for our Southern regions,” he tells The Parliament, pointing out that the EU’s executive body is in “continuous dialogue with all actors in the [agricultural] sector”.   

He adds: “In a wider sense, these recent developments serve to remind us how fragile our agricultural systems can be due to negative climate impacts, and therefore how crucial the European Union’s environmental and climate ambitions are for our future.”  

What does this mean for producers and consumers?   

Olive growers already rely heavily on financial support from the EU. “The olive sector in Spain is only being saved through the support of the Common Agricultural Policy,” says Spanish MEP Clara Aguilera (S&D), referring to the EU policy that seeks to support farmers, ensure food security and promote sustainable agriculture. “Without it, in many areas, tree orchards would be abandoned, because around 40 per cent of the farmers’ income comes from CAP support,” she adds, referring to the spending programme, one the of EU’s largest, by its acronym.   

In the Madrid region alone, farmers have been granted €8.5m in support for organic and traditional olive groves from Spain’s CAP funds until 2027.   

In Greece, where olives constitute around 20 per cent of cultivated land, approximately 450,000 families currently depend on olive farming for their livelihoods. Sharp production declines could have severe economic consequences for them.   

George Doutsias, president of the National Interprofessional Organization for Table Olives (Doepel), an Athens-based group representing olive producers, warns that the 2023 to 2024 season may leave members facing “significant unemployment and reduction in their incomes.” Doepel has held regular meetings with the Greek rural development and food ministry to discuss the developments.   

Olive production and consumption hold deep historical and cultural significance in Europe, particularly in the Mediterranean region, where olive trees even bear mythological importance. According to the founding myth of Greece’s capital, Goddess Athena offered the Athenians the first olive tree. Opting for Athena over sea god Poseidon as the city's patrons, the Athenians consecrated the olive tree as an enduring symbol of their city.  

Olive oil thefts have increased, with supermarkets resorting to padlocking bottles to shelves.

Beyond cultural symbolism, olives and olive oil have long been celebrated for their health benefits. “Olive oil reduces cholesterol and helps control heart rate. It is one of the few products with these characteristics. It is also stable in cooking, especially in frying, unlike sunflower oil, which can have negative compounds, potentially harmful to health,” says Maria Isabel Garcia, a representative of the Spanish Young Farmers’ Association.  

The decline in olive and olive-oil production has had far-reaching consequences for consumers across the EU. The region is the world’s largest exporter and consumer of olive oil. Limited supplies have driven prices skywards, with a 115 per cent increase in Spain and a 50 per cent hike in Greece between 2022 and 2023. Olive oil thefts have increased, with supermarkets resorting to padlocking olive oil bottles to shelves.   

“Greek consumers are anxious about the olive shortage. They want to buy olive oil now because the price is still not too high,” Dimas says. Greece has the largest per capita consumption of olive oil in Europe, with an individual annual intake of around 12 kilograms per person per year. In Spain and Italy, consumption is nearly as high, at around 11 kilograms per person.   

Producers like Dimas have started to distribute olive oil in smaller amounts to address demand. “It’s important for me for everyone to be able to buy olive oil,” the olive farmer says.   

Beyond concerns like shoplifting, a growing issue is olive oil’s appearance on the black market. Last December, Spanish and Italian police arrested 11 people, seizing over 5,000 litres of adulterated olive oil, which they intended to sell as extra virgin on the market. With global production falling, but consumption on the rise, Europol has warned that similar practices may become an increasing problem.   

Measures taken   

Some national authorities are taking action to curb the effects of climate change on olive oil production. In Spain’s Andalusia region, at the initiative of local lawmakers, irrigation infrastructure is being modernised, with plans underway to regenerate water from wastewater treatment plants.   

But MEP Aguilera, who is from Andalusia, sees an inconsistency in the investments made so far. “Because of the situation we are in now, we want to invest. But if next year, it rains a lot, investments are paralysed,” she says. “For 30 years, the olive sector has been asking for measures. We should have amply invested a long time ago to avoid the situation we are in today.”  

In Greece, Doepel, the table olives trade association, has tried to raise awareness of cultivation techniques that can enhance olive trees’ resistance to climate change. For instance, to mitigate water stress, olive farmers can practice sparse plantings, providing distance between trees for optimal growth.  

Dimas is also taking steps to protect his crops. The farmer plans to install a water-collection system to ensure a wintertime water supply for his olive trees.    

He feels disheartened that he has had to resort to this adaptation measure and would still much prefer rainwater, which, he stressed, “makes the olives tastier and more aromatic.” But, he concedes, as winters get warmer and drier, implementing these types of solutions will become increasingly necessary to help preserve the quality of the olives and the oil-production process.