Traditional Portuguese Olive Oil, a Culinary Staple We Take for Granted, May Be at Risk

Old olive tree groves in Portugal, some of which have withstood Napoleonic invasions, the end of the monarchy, and four decades of fascist dictatorship, are being increasingly abandoned — and threatened by a disease.

Centenary, sometimes millennial olive trees populate the Portuguese countryside like old relics. It’s impossible to venture through a rural landscape here and not see them — they are the omnipresent reminder of past lineage, traditions, and lives lived. Many of these great trees have laid witness to some of the most impactful historical events in the country, and as if this wasn’t enough, they continue to provide us with one of the most emblematic staples of Portuguese cuisine: olive oil.

Centenary Olive Tree, Vila Velha de Ródão – All images by Francisco Pinheiro / Guarda-Rios*

Last year marked the largest olive crop on record since 1941, when yearly figures began to be documented. Jornal de Negócios reports that 2019 had a yield of 943 thousand tons harvested, which had a significantly positive impact on olive oil producers’ revenues — with Alentejo being the leading region, having produced 70% of the country’s entire crop during the past five years.

However, the time of abundance may be short-lived, as 2020 has been tainted with a considerable fall in crop yields. Instituto Nacional de Estatística (INE) recently put out a report indicating that the olive crop shrunk by 30% compared to last year. This is a devastating blow to the olive industry that has been greatly attributed to climate conditions.

The fall in olive production occurs a year after the arrival of the tree-killing bacteria Xylella fastidiosa in Portuguese territory, in January of 2019. The bacteria essentially obstructs the interior of the trees so they are unable to absorb water, leading them to dry out and eventually die. There is no cure yet. 

The bacteria first arrived in Europe via Italy in 2013, where it has killed millions of olive trees and devastated the olive production of entire regions, such as Puglia. It has already made its way to Spain, and Greece is on high alert. 

As of yet, there have been no widespread cases of olive trees being infected in Portugal. The bacteria was detected in Vila Nova de Gaia in lavender plants. The bacteria can be carried by a variety of plants, but many are asymptomatic. Experts warn, however, that it spreads quickly — and the most greatly affected species are olive, almond and citrus trees. 

Atlas spoke with Luis Coutinho, agronomist and head of Herdade Tapada da Tojeira, one of the first organic olive producers in the country, about the state and future of olive production in Portugal. 

Coutinho says that this has been a hard year for olive production already, he referred to figures he has had access to from different agricultural associations, which signal a drop of 35%. Coutinho makes a point to mention that this hasn’t been evenly distributed — his olive groves saw production shrink by 85%.

He attributed the drop to various factors: for one, 2019 had very high yields, and good years are generally followed by slumps. It’s the nature of the tree: it gives a lot, but the following year it recovers from the previous harvest and gives less. Coutinho says that, as producers, they expected the reduction but nothing like we have seen so far. 

Such an accented contraction is in large part attributed to a series of late-season storms in the spring that affected the flowering of the plant, and the formation of the fruit.

Regarding the arrival of the tree-killing bacteria, Coutinho says there isn’t much they can do other than be extra vigilant and isolate the infected trees once it strikes. He also notes Portugal needs to be careful with the movement of plants between different regions in the country, because an infected plant may end up getting transported to a location where, if it spreads, it could be disastrous.

Coutinho warns that the largest threat to the traditional harvesting of century-old olive trees is the rise of industrial agriculture, in the form of intensive olive groves. 

Intensive olive grove, near the Alqueva dam in Alentejo

He says that this model of agriculture “is greatly productive because it gives thousands of kilos of olives per hectare, and the cost of harvesting is very low because it is highly mechanized.” However, this inevitably comes with a large toll for the environment: “This model of production requires a lot of water, and the trees are treated with a huge  amount of chemical products, such as fertilizers and pesticides, which greatly contaminate water sources and the soil,” Coutinho says. 

Coutinho says there’s a lack of sustainability in this model: as the land is heavily fertilized to promote overproduction, this will lead to the complete depletion of nutrients in the soil in 15 to 20 years. All the while, old groves — some which have withstood Napoleonic invasions, the end of the monarchy, four decades of fascist dictatorship, and countless other historical events — are being increasingly abandoned because small traditional producers can’t compete with the intensive model of production. 

Traditional olive harvesting, Fornos de Algodres

Traditional olive harvest is very labor-intensive, hence its cost is high, resulting in higher olive oil prices. Coutinho urges consumers to be attentive when they shop, because when opting for a cheaper brand that comes from intensive farming, they may inadvertently be contributing to the abandonment of a centuries-old tradition.

Moreover, by opting for intensively produced olive oil, we are missing out on the diversity of flavors and characteristics that distinct olive varieties produced throughout different regions of the country provide.

There is no clear labeling to help shoppers discern whether the olive oil they are buying is from traditional or intensive farming. Coutinho is hoping to change that, and says it’s imperative intensive producers be obliged to place a stamp on their label that states it derives from intensive farming. 

In the meantime, research the producers while you’re at the grocery store; oil that comes from cooperatives is generally a good bet because they pull together the olives of many small producers; or if you can afford to, buy from local organic producers. 

*Guarda-Rios is a relational art-based collective that has been mapping out the complex relationships resulting from the industrial, agroforestry, and local practices that take place in and around the various rivers of Portugal. Guarda-Rios is supported by Direção-Geral das Artes and the Portuguese Government. More info: guardarios.org

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