Olive oil has been produced in Italy for at least 4,000 years, far longer than other Italian specialties like pasta, pizza and Spumoni. But last year, olive groves across the peninsula took major hits from the weather and disease, and now Italy may have to do the unimaginable—import olive oil from other countries. Even more startling, it’s a situation that could become the norm due to the impacts of climate change.
Arthur Neslen at The Guardian reports that a string of bad weather combined to reduce the annual olive harvest in Italy by 57 percent. That makes it the worst harvest in 25 years and translates to a $1.13 billion loss for olive farmers.
The olives took a triple hit in 2018. First, a major cold snap in February 2018 hit the Mediterranean nation, which even led to a rare snowfall in Rome, reports Rob Picheta at CNN. That was followed by a major heat wave across Europe over the summer and then by catastrophic rains and flooding in parts of the country in October and November.
The olives couldn’t handle and of it, as they can be damaged by any type of extreme weather, whether it’s frost, extreme heat or heavy rain. Nick Squires at The Telegraph reports that the stress from the weather also makes the trees more vulnerable to olive flies. In addition, a potent plant pathogen that likely hitched a ride on imported plants from Costa Rica—called xylella fastidiosa—has killed hundreds of thousands of trees in the important oil-producing region of Puglia.
“Three or four days of 40C [104 Fahrenheit] temperatures in summer, or 10 days without rain in spring – even two days of freezing temperatures in spring – are more important than the average for the year,” Riccardo Valentini, a director of the Euro-Mediterranean Center for Climate Change, tells The Guardian’s Neslen.
Valentini thinks there may be more trouble for Italian olives—and all European olives—in the near future. The extreme weather events, he points out, have been predicted as one of the major impacts of climate change, and olive farmers need to anticipate them. “We know there will be more extremes and anomalies in the future,” he says.
It’s not just the trees that are suffering. In February, olive farmers impacted by the decline in olive production took to the streets wearing orange vests across Italy, demanding more government support for their ailing sector. “The government promised a solution but it has not given any more resources for the olive farmers… [and there is] no plan for [addressing] climate change and olive oil production either,” a spokesman for the Italian agriculture group Coldiretti said at the time, reports Picheta.
Other olive oil producing countries in Europe are also expected to see reduced yields, with harvests in Portugal down 20 percent. Greece is expecting a 42 percent decline, though that country’s biggest concern is an olive fly infestation that has reduced the quality of its oil, most of which is normally classed as extra virgin.
The saving grace for olive oil lovers is Spain, which had a bumper crop of olives and will make up three-quarters of Europe’s olive oil production this year, reports Danielle Pacheco at Olive Oil Times. Unlike Italy and Greece, which often rely on ancient, traditional olive groves, many regions of Spain have planted more modern high-density, drought-resistant olive tree plantations.
Squires at The Telegraph reports that Italy boasts about 500 different varieties of olive oil, but the shortages this year may force some citizens to try oil from outside the country’s borders for the first time.
“It will actually be a big change in our lives,” Valentini tells Picheta at CNN. “Italians have never used foreign olive oil ... it’s very rare you find oil from other countries.”