For generations, families in Italy, and all across the Mediterranean Basin, have relied on the olive tree for its golden elixir: olive oil. The tree grows naturally in this part of the world and, for centuries, olives were as reliable as the rain, wind and sun.
But, in olive-producing regions of Italy, a changing climate is making the business of harvesting trees all the more uncertain and irregular. As the weather becomes more and more erratic, olive oil production has become not just an art, but also a science.
Olive trees are sturdy and grow naturally across the Mediterranean region. But producing the best olive oil means cultivating the best olives — and that’s hard. The olives have to be unripe enough when cultivated to prevent the oil from losing its freshness quickly. But they can’t be too ripe either.
Swings in weather patterns — too much rain, not enough rain, frost too early or too late — all affect the natural growing pattern of the olive, and create uncertainty for olive oil producers.
Those challenges didn’t stop Giuseppe Morisani and Skyler Mapes from getting into the business; they are facing the reality of climate change head on.
The pair never anticipated getting into olive oil. Morisani’s parents owned a seven-hectare farm on the windswept hills of Calabria overlooking the Mediterranean. Pressing olives and draining them to make oil was, for centuries, just a part of life for families like his in Calabria, many of them poor.
“My family made olive oil for 100 years, but we never had a business,” Morisani says.
Today that’s changing, and like a growing number of young people in Italy, Morisani is returning to the land his family harvested for centuries. He and his American-born wife are the entrepreneurial minds behind EXAU, a manufacturer of high-end olive oil in Calabria. Their product, which they plan to ship to Canada soon, was voted in 2020 as one of Oprah’s “favourite things.”
They love what they do, but point out that it’s also a lot of tough work.
“They have to be babysat,” says Mapes of newly planted olive trees. “You really have to take care of them.”
And climate change is not making that job any easier.
Changes in weather patterns are presenting a host of challenges for olive oil producers.
In 2017, the first year of Morisani and Mapes’ operation in Calabria, on the southern tip of the Italian “boot,” an unusual blast of cold air struck the grove early in the harvest cycle.
The past two winters, mild weather has been a concern for them. The olive tree needs consistently cold nights — but not too cold — to prevent a fruit fly known as Bactrocera oleae from ravaging the trees.
In California, olive oil is also a growing business, and there, as in Italy, erratic weather is a concern.
“It should be colder, longer,” says Michael Fox, who runs California Olive Ranch, one of the biggest U.S. producers of olive oil. He’s had three consistently off years, compounded last year by drought conditions.
But, like other producers around the world, his operation is adapting with advances in soil science, along with regenerative techniques that allow for the trees to stay healthier longer. “We’re trying to create a healthy bacterium environment in our soils,” Fox says.
“I put all my hope in my chemist and my biologist,” says EXAU’s co-founder, Morisani. “We check the lists all the time to see the nutrients that are missing on the tree.”
The olive economy
Canadians love their olive oil.
In 2020, Canada imported over $213 million worth of bottled, extra virgin olive oil. The lion’s share of those imports, over $88 million worth, came from Italy, followed by Tunisia ($51 million), Spain ($50 million) and Greece ($13 million), according to Statistics Canada.
“It’s a $15-billion industry,” says Curtis Cord, who runs an industry publication called the Olive Oil Times, based in Newport, Rhode Island.
He says consumers typically think of Italy or Greece when they shop for olive oil. But they should also be thinking of places like South America, Morocco and Tunisia.
That country, in particular, is becoming a much more important player in the olive oil market for Canada. The value of imports from Tunisia has multiplied 70-fold over a decade, and Tunisia now rivals Italy as an exporter of olive oil destined for Canadian store shelves.
In a 2014 academic paper, food researchers based in Italy and California predicted that a warming planet would open up more parts of the Mediterranean, notably North Africa and certain parts of Italy, to olive harvesting.
That increased production means more yields. That’s the good news. The risk, however, is that an international market flooded with olive oil puts downward pressure on prices for producers churning out the product.
“Most of the concern for the growers is the very low olive prices,” says Luigi Ponti, a researcher with the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy, and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA). Ponti is also part of an international team called MED-GOLD that is working to help farmers readapt their practices based on the latest climate data and projections.
The smell of freshness
Compounding the challenges brought on by climate change, says industry watcher Cord, is the lack of education around what makes a great bottle of olive oil versus a good or mediocre one.
“The quality of the olive oil greatly depends on the condition of the olives that were used to make it,” he told Global News.
In addition to taste, the quality of extra virgin olive oil is assessed simply by smelling the product. If there is too much cheap product flooding the market, and customers who can’t tell the difference, a product that barely meets the smell test when it leaves the factory floor risks ending up on the supermarket shelf.
Most customers, he believes, know to shop for extra virgin olive oil. But beyond that, he fears, “people don’t know what this product is.”
Extra virgin olive oil simply means that the oil comes from 100 per cent unadulterated, healthy olives.
“We are talking about a fruit juice here,” Cord says.
“The better the fruit, the better the juice.”
The oil has not been refined, or heated up to remove bad flavours or smells, to say nothing of beneficial antioxidants that are lost in the refining process. It has not been mixed with other oils like sunflower or vegetable oil. And, the best extra virgin, is freshly harvested. Unlike wine, olive oil does not need aging. Oil that has been sitting around for weeks or months becomes oxidized and tastes rancid as a result.
In Canada, there are no rules requiring harvest dates to be indicated on a bottle of olive oil. “This information can be provided voluntarily as long as it is not false or misleading,” says the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in a statement to Global News.
But consumers, armed with knowledge, will be able to tell the difference themselves.
“Your nose should be able to tell you if the oil is fresh,” Wang says.
“You’re looking for something that smells fresh, green.” The oil should taste fruity; there should be some bitterness and pungency — indications that its nutrients, including the antioxidants, are present and intact.
Climate of uncertainty
Nobody expects olives to disappear any time soon from Italy, or Spain or Tunisia. But farmers’ relationship to the olive is changing everywhere — and becoming more complex.
“The challenge,” he says “is predictability and how and where we’re producing food. That’s what climate change is doing.”
“I wouldn’t imagine Umbria without the olive tree,” says Ponti, the Italian researcher, referring to an olive-producing region of the country. “It’s very much a symbol for the region, and for Italy, and for the whole Mediterranean.”
But as the climate changes, it’s no longer a question of planting the trees and waiting for them to bear fruit as might have been the case in the past.
On the farm in Calabria, EXAU’s Mapes and Morisani have had water bombs, sea tornados and intense bursts of wind, all of which threaten the olives upon which their livelihood depends.
For them, as for other producers, the devil is in the details when it comes to making olive oil.
“We don’t run our business; the olive trees run our business.”