By Richard Thompson
Retailers looking for any supply increases or price stabilization for Italian olive oil are most likely not going to find it this year. The dismal 2014 harvest of Italian olive oil lowered levels of production and increased costs to retailers and consumers from a combination of conditions that have no immediate solutions and probably won’t be resolved in the near future.
David Neuman, CEO of Gaea, North America, LLC and who has worked previously with Lucini Italia has seen problems with Italian oil harvests for years and sees the industry working on borrowed time. “Every single year there’s a problem,” Neuman said, “Every year there are good harvests and bad harvests, but southern Italy is getting pummeled [by Olive Quick Decline Syndrome], and the last harvest was like a perfect storm. Too many combinations that came together.”
So what is plaguing Italian farmers and oil producers on such a dismal scale? Basically, everything that could harm production is happening all at once.
Italy had a terrible rainy season last year and olive flies had infested compromised crops, but the Olive Quick Decline Syndrome (OQDS), a bacterial infection that withers and desiccates the tree shoots, is now spreading across the province of Lecce, leaving Italian officials unsure on how to resolve the problem.
First reported at the end of September 2013 by the Italian government’s Plant Health Directorate in Malta, OQDS was already considered an epidemic in the Italian province of Lecce, with more than 8000 hectares of olive orchards affected, but a declaration that OQDS was responsible for olive tree deaths was deferred pending further study.
The Italian Trade Commissioner agrees with this non-committal stance, even while acknowledging the growing blight caused by OQDS. “We feel the authorities have to further investigate the bacteria and its effects that are a cause for concern” said Pier Paolo Celeste, Italian Trade Commissioner and Executive Director for the NY offices in the US, “It is not entirely proven yet.”
The ITC believes that the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium – the cause for OQDS – may not be what is making the olive trees sick. Instead, they believe that it is only a component that must be activated by right conditions to harm the trees, leaving the olive fruit still safe for consumption. “We know for sure that the quality of the fruit is intact,” Celeste said, “It attacks the tree itself, but does not affect the quality of the olive oil produced. It is absolutely safe.”
Some Italian non-government organizations, such as Peacelink, are pushing to save the trees infected by OQDS. The organization has requested the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), an independent organization that advises the European Union, to confirm that the bacterium is not the cause of olive tree death. Peacelink points to trees that have survived and rebounded after the orchards have been treated, but hasn’t been able to provide enough proof to be sure.
The EFSA is saying that X. fastidiosa is a new problem for Italian olive trees and doesn’t seem to need specific conditions in order to spread, so there’s no concrete plan that is sure to succeed that will stop the spread. Since X. fastidiosa has such as wide range of hosts, it can persist even with insecticide treatments on specific host crops – such as olive trees.
On top of that, there is no record of successful eradication of X. fastidiosa once it finds a home outdoors. The destruction of olive trees that have been infected is one of the only ways to contain the spread of the blight, an action the Italian government is reluctant to approve and Peacelink outright opposes.
Despite their qualms, the Italian government has already culled an estimated 700,000 olive trees, with some reports indicating the number closer to 1 million or more. Some of these trees were between 150 and 200 years old.
The acreage that was culled was immediately replanted with new precautions in place to prevent further spread. This new crop of olive trees is hoped to be back in production in about three to four years.
“We are actively seeking out viable solutions,” Celeste said, “It is something that is being vigorously studied by our authorities; as it represents a unique challenge.”
The production will certainly not be back to normal in 2015. Neither will prices.
The Italian Trade Commission Office confirms that 2014’s limited production did affect prices. A recent report by the International Olive Council (IOC), an independent organization that reports on the olive industry annually, stated that Italian production actually declined 55 percent and prices climbed by as much as 37 percent from 2013. The IOC is currently projecting that Italy’s 2015 olive oil production will be larger than 2014’s, but still significantly below normal.