Southern Europe’s Olive Trees Under Threat

Scorching temperatures sweeping across southern Europe this summer are causing more than just discomfort. They’re putting the olive oil industry at risk, with experts warning of surging prices and potential shortages. Olive trees, unable to cope with extreme heat, are either shedding their fruit to conserve moisture or producing fruit at the expense of their own health. This alarming situation compounds the worries after a poor olive harvest last year, following Europe’s hottest recorded summer.


Heat Takes a Toll on Olive Trees


When temperatures soar, olive trees drop their fruit to survive, leading to diminished yields. Kyle Holland, an expert at market research group Mintec, explains that high temperatures, especially during spring flowering, pose a significant threat. The dire scenario follows a slump in Spain’s olive oil production — the world’s largest producer — which dropped to about 620,000 metric tons compared to a five-year average of 1.3 million metric tons.


Signs of Trouble


The evidence is hard to ignore. This summer’s intense heatwave gripped the Mediterranean region, raising concerns that climate change made such extreme conditions possible. Spain, Italy, Greece, and other olive oil producing countries are grappling with the fallout. The full impact won’t be known until after harvest time in October and November, but Europe’s olive oil production could plummet by over 30%, or 700,000 metric tons, compared to the five-year average.


Prices Surge, Shortages Loom


Bulk prices for olive oil have already doubled compared to the previous year, and experts warn of a looming supply shortage. Walter Zanre, CEO of Filippo Berio UK, emphasizes the gravity of the situation, stating that after last year’s shortfall, the industry can ill afford another poor harvest. The International Olive Council acknowledges the complex situation caused by climate change but falls short of declaring it a crisis.


Uncertain Impact on Consumers


The effects on consumers remain uncertain. Rising prices pose a pivotal question: Will consumers continue to buy olive oil at elevated prices, or will they switch to alternative oils? The broader implications of extreme heat on food production are evident. Beyond olive oil, many crops face significant threats due to water stress caused by soaring temperatures.


Global Food System Under Pressure


Climate researcher Corey Lesk explains that extreme heat poses the greatest risk to crops due to water stress, which can cause lasting damage. Italy, hit by heatwaves, droughts, and floods, is witnessing significant damage to its fruit crops. India experienced a 400% increase in tomato prices due to heatwaves and heavy rains, prompting restaurants to remove tomatoes from their menus. The situation is also grim in the US, particularly in the South and West regions, affecting crops like wheat, cotton, corn, and soybeans.


Experts Warn of Ominous Future


Experts warn of a worsening situation for food production as the climate crisis increases the frequency and severity of extreme weather. While the global food system has shown resilience, extreme weather is outpacing climate models, leading to potential game-changing risks in the near future. As the olive oil industry grapples with immediate challenges, the broader context of climate change casts a shadow over food production worldwide.