Olive oil is in trouble as extreme heat and drought push the industry into crisis

The scorching temperatures that have swept southern Europe this summer are not only claiming lives and priming the land for devastating wildfires — they’re also very bad news for olive trees, with olive oil industry experts warning of skyrocketing prices and potential shortages.

When it’s too hot, olive trees drop their fruit to save moisture or produce fruit at the expense of the health of the tree, said Kyle Holland, who covers oils and oilseeds at market research group Mintec. Very high temperatures are particularly dangerous in spring, during flowering.

The situation is all the more concerning as it comes on the heels of a bad olive harvest last year, following Europe’s hottest summer on record.

In Spain, the world’s biggest olive oil producer, production plunged to roughly 620,000 metric tons, compared to the five-year average of around 1.3 million metric tons, said Holland.

“After such a shortfall from the previous harvest, the last thing the industry needs is another poor crop,” said Walter Zanre, the chief executive of Filippo Berio UK, an arm of one of the world’s biggest olive oil brands.

But the signs are pointing that way. This summer, heat gripped swaths of the Mediterranean region, bringing a “heat hell” scientists say would have been virtually impossible without climate change.

It has affected Spain — which has seen rolling heat waves since April, when temperatures pushed toward 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) — as well as other olive oil producing countries such as Italy and Greece.

The full extent of the damage won’t be known until after harvest time in October and November, but European olive oil production could sink by 700,000 metric tons — a fall of more than 30% — compared to the five-year average, Holland said.

Bulk prices for olive oil have doubled compared to the same time last year and all indications point to a shortfall in the next harvest, Zanre said.

There doesn’t seem to be any respite on the horizon,” he said, adding “the industry is in crisis.”

The International Olive Council stopped short of calling the situation a crisis, but a spokesperson said “we are facing a complex situation as a consequence of climate change.” Globally, olive oil production is predicted to drop 20% between October 2022 and September 2023, the spokesperson told CNN.

How much this will affect consumers is unclear. As prices push upward, the big question will be “do consumers continue to buy olive oil at these prices or do we see switches [to other oils],” Holland said.

Of course, the problem extreme heat poses to food is much broader. “It’s getting to the stage where the concerns are significant not just for olive oil but for a lot of crops,” Holland said.

Extreme heat is the climate impact that crops are most vulnerable to, mainly because it causes water stress, said Corey Lesk, a climate researcher at Dartmouth College. “Crops are stuck between a thirsty atmosphere and dry soils, which can lead to lasting damages” he told CNN.

In Italy, which has been buffeted by heat, droughts and floods this summer, fruit crops have been particularly hard hit, said Lorenzo Bazzana, economic manager for Italian farmers association, Coldiretti.

The cherry harvest is down by about 60%, peaches and nectarines are estimated to be down by around 30% and apricots by 20%, Bazzana told CNN. Tomatoes are also in trouble, damaged by hail and scorched by the sun.

Climate change is disrupting farming in Italy, as it is across the world, said Bazzana. While action is being taken to limit the damage, he added, “when there are tornadoes or hailstones as big as oranges, everything becomes difficult.”

In India, tomatoes prices soared more than 400% last month after scorching heat waves and heavy rains. Some McDonald’s restaurants across the country temporarily took tomatoes off the menu in July, and Burger King followed suit in August, citing quality and supply issues.

In the US, crops in the South and West look to be particularly affected, said Nicholas Paulson, a professor at the agricultural school of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“Heat combined with the very dry conditions will impact primary crops in those regions which would include wheat, cotton, and corn and soybeans,” he told CNN.

Experts warn of worse to come for food production, as the human-caused climate crisis increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather. “This is effectively changing the risk profile facing farmers,” Paulson told CNN.

So far, the global food system has proved relatively resilient, said Lesk of Dartmouth College, despite increasingly hot summers. But extreme weather is accelerating faster than climate models suggest, he added, meaning climate risks are probably bigger and happening faster than most people have predicted.

“We’re on the precipice of game-changing risks,” Lesk said, “and it’s far from obvious that these won’t push the global food system over the edge, certainly in 50 years, but maybe even in five to 10 at this rate.”

Source from: cnn.com