The global surface area of olive trees cultivated for commercial purposes has decreased for the first time in 22 years.
The largest drop was noted in Greece, Italy, Jordan, Spain and Syria, all of which were countries where the internal consumption of olives and olive oil had decreased, Olive Oil Times reported on 17 October.
“The international olive cultivation surface area has grown over the last two decades by more than 1M ha, mainly through modern cultivation,” said industry analyst and professor at the University of Jaén, Juan Vilar Hernández. The number of countries in which olives were cultivated had also grown from 46 to 65.
Vilar explained that the general increase in olive groves was likely due to the availability of cheap land for agriculture outside of Europe. The scale of the farms coupled with the low cost of production made them highly profitable.
However, while updating his co-authored 2018 report, ‘International Olive Growing – Worldwide Analysis and Summary’, Vilar found that for the first time in 22 years, the international olive tree surface had decreased.
Growers were switching to more profitable options, such as growing almond and walnut trees, said Vilar, who expected the almond market to continue increasing in the next eight to 10 years.
The second factor behind the shrinking olive surface area was that modern cultivation was overtaking traditional oliviculture – which made up 70% of the global olive planted area.
Vilar said traditional cultivation had a low plant density of less than 200 trees/ha, while more modern cultivation had a planting density of 250-400 trees/ha, and super high intensive cultivation between 600-1,600 trees/ha.
The third reason behind the shrinking olive area was that international olive oil stocks were at their highest point ever.
Olive Oil Times reported that the surface area decrease would last as long as olive oil prices remained low in major producing countries like Spain.
“Prices are the incentive for crop development,” said report co-author Jorge Enrique Pereira Benítez, an olive oil consultant and professor of agronomy. “The trend in Spain is low prices, so there are producers who abandon olive groves. As prices improve and the crop becomes more profitable, the trend may change.”
“In traditional olive growing countries, many olive farmers are either retired people or people with other jobs who farm commercially over weekends and holidays,” Vilar said.
“When prices for olive products recover, these farmers will once again start cultivating their groves,” he added. “However, some groves, for instance, those located in the mountains and so forth, will be permanently abandoned.”
The International Olive Growing report said that a total of 11.5M ha was dedicated to the plantation and cultivation of olive groves. From this production, 13.39% was dedicated to table olives, while 86.61% was dedicated to olive oil production.