The historic drought that could make the price of olive oil rise even further

The historic drought that could make the price of olive oil rise even further

Farmer Francisco Elvira makes her way through her burnt-out olive grove, stopping to see the stunted fruit on the practically dry trees.

“Look at them,” he says desperately. “They should have olives now, close to harvest. But they’re empty. And this is the harvest for the olive oil that’s going to hit supermarkets next year.”

The fertile plains full of olive trees that stretch across southern Spain have made this country the world’s largest producer of olive oil, accounting for about half of global production.

But, ravaged by the drought already recorded in Europe, Spain’s so-called “green gold” is becoming rarer. Yields this year have already dropped by about a third — and there is still no sign of rain that could improve the situation.

At Interóleo’s factory in Jaén, the province responsible for producing half of all Spanish olive oil, pumps pour the oil into glass and plastic bottles, which pass through the conveyor belt to be labeled “product of Spain”.

But the factory, which exports to countries like the UK, is seeing production plummet and prices soar, exacerbating the global crisis of food shortages and inflation.

“Consumers are already paying a third more than last year, but the drought will increase the value even more,” says Juan Gadeo, head of the cooperative, who believes this vital sector for Spain is in jeopardy.

“With the crisis, we may have to lay off some workers. There is a feeling of depression and uncertainty. Another year like this would be a complete catastrophe,” he says.

wider crisis

The situation of Spanish olive oil is part of a picture that is repeated throughout the agricultural sector. Recent research has shown that parts of the Iberian Peninsula are facing their worst drought in 1,200 years.

Farmers in the country have been planting more sunflowers since the start of the year in an attempt to make up for the loss of sunflower oil from Ukraine – the world’s biggest producer, where the war has led to a drastic drop in production.

But a flower that needs the sun also needs the rain — and there is no rain in the region, leading to a crop of withered plants that produce neither seeds nor oil.

While uprooting the dead sunflowers from her plantation, Isabel Villegas says she is considering whether to plant again for the next harvest.

“If it doesn’t rain by the end of the year, it doesn’t make sense to plant more,” he says. “That would be like throwing money away. And there’s no rain forecast yet.”

A recent report by the Global Drought Observatory concluded that Europe is suffering its worst drought in 500 years.

Several countries on the continent are battling wildfires and heat waves — Spain is one of the hardest hit.

More than 270,000 hectares have been burned this year, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.

Extreme heat and lack of rainfall have led to a dramatic drop in the levels of Spain’s natural water reserves. The Vinuela reservoir, near Malaga, is at just over 10% of its storage capacity.

Elsewhere, Middle Ages village structures built by the sea, long covered by rivers, were exposed as water levels dropped.

Spain’s government is now expanding and building seawater desalination plants, taking advantage of the ocean to alleviate the resource’s scarcity.

End of the ‘garden of Europe’?

In Campo de Dalias, next to the coastal town of Almería, the BBC News report visited a facility where seawater is pumped.

Half of the volume of salt is extracted to produce drinking water, while the other half absorbs the additional salt and is then diverted to the ocean — the goal is not to cause environmental damage.

The plant produces 90,000 cubic meters of drinking water a day, but was recently forced to increase production to around 130,000 cubic meters over the next four years.

Around the facility, fields are filled with plastic sheeting, acting as greenhouses for the fruits and vegetables that grow below.

Half of the water produced in the desalination plant is used to water the crops. Spain produces more fruit and vegetables than any other country in the European Union.

According to some scientists, this is part of the problem: in an era of acute water scarcity, Spain simply can no longer be “the garden of Europe”, as it is often called.

“The total area of ​​irrigated land in Spain has been increasing in recent decades, both legally and illegally,” says Julia Martinez of the New Water Culture Foundation.

She believes that the country’s current water management model is unsustainable.

“Irrigated land consumes 85% of all water resources. With the remaining 15%, it is not possible to meet all water demands, some of which have higher priorities. Unless we change this balance, we will not improve the state. of our rivers or adapt to climate change,” says Martinez.

Cracked soil, dry rivers, crop failure: Spain’s fertile land is being impoverished by a man-made climate emergency. The cost of this is getting higher and higher.

And there is still no forecast of rain for the beautiful, dry plains of Andalusia.

This text was originally published here.

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