Europe’s Olive Trees Are Dying. Here’s Why You Should Care

Olive oil, staple of the much-ballyhooed Mediterranean diet, is about to get a little more expensive. 

The world’s top producers, Spain and Italy, have faced a series of plagues that led one Italian newspaper to refer to 2014 as “the black year of Italian oil.” Ninety-five percent of the world’s olive trees are in the Mediterranean. Italy’s woes have knocked it down to third place in production, behind Spain and Tunisia, but it remains the world’s largest olive oil exporter. (A quirk in Italian labeling laws allows Italy to sell oil produced elsewhere but bottled in Italy as “Italian,” making it the second biggest importer of olive oil as well.)

“We’ve seen big reductions in key areas for imported oils,” says Curtis Cord, publisher of Olive Oil Times.  “Domestic producers have had a tough year, too.”

And it’s all because Italy has been rocked by an invasion of Bactrocera oleae, the olive fruit fly.

Adult flies lay eggs in olives during the spring and summer, before the fruit has fully developed. The larvae hatch within two to three days and begin tunneling through the fruit, destroying it. The olive harvest runs from roughly October through January, meaning the whole cycle can repeat itself several times over the course of the summer and fall, devastating entire groves. (The 2014-15 season officially ends on September 30.)

As if that weren’t enough, the groves in Puglia, Italy’s largest olive producing region, have been infected with a bacteria called Xylella fastidiousa. Xylella is endemic in the Americas, where it destroys citrus groves in Brazil and costs California wine makers $104 million a year.

The bacteria probably spread to Italy via an infected plant from Costa Rica. Xylella slowly desiccates trees, lowering fruit production and eventually killing the tree altogether. The European Union (EU) has established 40 kilometers of buffer and surveillance zones around the affected area (the bottom part of the heel on the Italian boot), but the disease has already spread to Corsica. Thirty-five thousand trees have been culled already, with the EU contemplating plans for up to a million to be uprooted and destroyed.

Together with Spain, Italy is responsible for 70 percent of the world’s olive oil output, which is where the next batch of bad news comes in. Spain suffered from extreme droughts in 2014, while fly-and-bacteria-battered Italy had to contend with flooding and hail. Even with increased production from places like Greece and Tunisia, the International Olive Council suggests that world output will be down by a third from last year—the lowest level in 15 years.

But perhaps, you say, this is not really America’s problem.  Sure, we’re the biggest consumer of olive oil outside the EU, and it’s sad for Europe and all, but we make olive oil, too!  Award-winning olive oils, even!

Not so fast. Ninety percent of the United States’ olive production is in California, where, as you might have heard, there is a pretty epic drought. Olives grown for oil are more resilient than those grown for eating, as they don’t have to be a uniform size or look pretty. But even with an above average olive harvest in California, the United States’ production for 2014-15 is expected to be a paltry 5,000 tons—a drop in the bucket compared to the 301,500 tons the U.S. will consume this season.

What does all this mean for you, the consumer?  National Geographic explorer and author of The Blue Zone Solution, Dan Buettner, thinks that since olive oil is a “small percentage” of a person’s overall diet, “rise in cost should not be too significant.” Cord says it’s “still possible to find good value if you look for it.”  He recommends buying in bulk for better prices, or looking for oils from unaffected regions. “South America had a good harvest.  Australia makes excellent olive oil and hasn’t been affected by production problems.”

Still, olive oil is not going to get any cheaper any time soon. Spanish olive oil went for $4,272 a metric ton at the end of July, the highest price since April 2006.  Consumer prices have risen about ten percent, and exporters are falling about 12 percent short of consumer demand. With profits approaching those of cocaine trafficking, rising prices make olive oil fraud even more appealing.

Nicole Washington works in the maps, art, and graphics department at National Geographic. She has strong feelings about barbecue (Lexington style) and cupcakes (cake is better). You can find her on Twitter.