Not all extra virgin olive oils are the same! In a previous post, we talked about how different EVOOs can be in terms of health benefits due to the different amount of polyphenols (anti-oxidants) they have.
The production method is another very important factor that makes extra virgin olive oils very different one from the other.
More and more small producers are struggling to compete with the lower price of olive oils coming from several regions around the world where big producers converted to the “super-intensive” (high density) plantations of olive trees.
The super-intensive olive grove is a way to cultivate the olive trees that allows to obtain a big reduction in production costs and increase of the profitability, because it’s mainly mechanized.
This results in cheaper price at the wholesale market and also in the shop and on Amazon.
The traditional olive groves (like those you may have seen with me in Puglia) have 250 olive trees per hectare. Whereas, the new super-intensive plantations have around 1100-2500 plants per hectare. I know there are countries where farmers have 3500 plants per hectare!!
This first picture features olive trees that are centuries old and are grown on a very rocky soil by the Adriatic sea coast in Puglia, Southern Italy. See how much space there is in between the trees: their roots are several meters long and are free to grow horizontally on the rocky soil.
This second picture features a super intensive plantation of very young olive trees. They are all “attached” to each other and there is no space in between. (picture is from the online magazine: Republica.it and Casale san Giorgio)
Supporters of the super-intensive method claim that because every step is mechanized, the quality is higher.
I agree that it would be very labor-intensive to hand-pick olives one by one and that appropriate machines should be used to harvest them (depending on the age of the trees).
However, I have four main issues with the super-intensive method:
1)First, the super-intensive method is not good for our health and is not sustainable for the environment because it requires lots more fertilizers and pesticides. The very young trees are asked to produce after 4-5 years. They pollinate less, because there is no hair in between the plants. These trees may get more diseases.
By the way, this does not apply just to the super intensive olive plantations: it’s the same for all the super-intensive productions, whether it is wheat, grapes, cotton, sunflowers etc.
Of course the worst condition for our health and for the environment is when lots more chemical fertilizers are used. However, even if organic fertilizers were used (in order to make organic products), still this super-intensive method is going to “stress” the soil and the plants. Those of you who joined my educational Artisans of Taste Treks in Puglia and in the North of Italy, visited a few sustainable food and wine farmers and learned that organic is good, but it is not enough! We need more than that!
Organic means that in the field, farmers can use organic fertilizers. However, as we learnt during the last Trek in Friuli Venezia Giulia, scientists have found out that, there are some organic fertilizers that can still “kill” the plants and the soil after being used for many years. Moreover, the “organic” certification only relates to what happens in the field: organic foods and wines may still contain sulphites, additives or other preservatives etc.
As we learnt in Puglia, Piedmont, Friuli Venezia Giulia and Sardinia, a much better production method for our health and for the environment is the one that, in addition to using organic fertilizers, also makes the soil and roots strong, so that the plant can defend itself. So I am in favor of organic productions where manure, grass, compost or other natural fertilizers are used; where the trees are “free” to grow vertically and horizontally; where the roots get the nutrients from the soil and the sun; where crops rotate; and where the plant is so “naturally” strong that the fruits and produce are very tasty, healthy and require very little or no preservatives.
All this does not happen with the super-intensive production. Olive trees need to get to full production after 4-5 years and when they start growing, because of the little space, they compete with each other until production reduces and the plantation is not profitable anymore. Some farmers told me that a super-intensive plantation is profitable for about 15 years, if well run, in some cases for 5 years.
Investors, not agronomists, are investing in this olive production method to get short term returns. But they are not including in their returns the costs of damage caused to the soil, plants and our health. I still have friends in the financial sector and I can confirm that many of them are investing in the olive oil business in many countries around the world.
This picture shows a farm that is not only organic but also focuses on making the soil and plant roots healthier and stronger. You can easily see that no pesticides are used because of all the beautiful wild grass and flowers, which are an indicator to quickly recognize whether chemicals are used . (Photo credits to James Strain)
2)The second reason why I do not like the super intensive olive plantation is that it kills bio-diversity because only 3 or 4 olive varieties from Spain can be used (Arbequina, Arbosana, Koroneiki).
FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization, an agency of the United Nations) says that safeguarding natural resources and biodiversity is critical to people’s health and planetary wealth.
In Italy we have more than 500 olive varieties, indigenous to each small sub-region and that had been grown for centuries or thousands of years. Converting to the super intensive method and using only 3-4 olive types, would be very bad for the ecosystem and boring for the consumer. (Imagine if, in the wine world, we only had 3 or 4 grape varieties….that would be quite boring!!)
3)My third issue is related to the antioxidants content. The olives used for the super-intensive method have less polyphenols (antioxidants) than those we would for example use in the South of Italy.
Also, because of the way the harvest machines work, olives need to be harvested a little bit later, when they are more ripen. This means that the resulting extra virgin olive oil is more “delicate” (so less bitter and less spicy in the throat) because of the very little antioxidants.
This of course would please consumers who are not expert in EVOO and who do not know that bitterness and the peppery effect in the throat are indicators of very high quality.
But what about all the other people who choose EVOO not simply as a food condiment, but also because of its huge health benefits and want an EVOO rich in antioxidants (and so bitter and peppery)??
4)The fourth reason is a personal one.
A few months ago I developed a food allergy. It’s not a food intollerance, but a real allergy reaction: when I have it, my eyes, lips, throat and face blow up and I look like a monster.
After lots of tests, I found out that I am allergic to a type of sunflower seeds oil. The funny thing is that I have eaten sunflower seeds before. Therefore, my doctor came to the conclusion that my allergy may be due to the chemical fertilizers that are now used for the sunflowers production, that is usually super-intensive.
Everything is ok when I cook at home as I would never use anything but my Stile Mediterraneo extra virgin olive oil. But I keep having these allergy reactions when I eat out at restaurants as often chefs cook with seeds oils and even when I inform them, this type of oil is now found almost everywhere (biscuits, patè, pistachio sauce, crackers, sometimes bread, focaccia, fried food etc).
Of course it’s all ok: I just need to carry an epi-pen with me when I eat out or travel. But my personal experience made me stop and think about what’s going on in the world and wondered how I could contribute.
My doctor said that more and more people have been developing food allergies at an adult age.
Of course the world is getting more populated and we need to produce more food at a quicker pace and at a cheaper price. But is the super-intensive method the right answer? It’s certainly cheaper, but is it good for our health and for the environment?
Some big producers in Italy and Puglia have already converted to the super intensive production because they were fed up of selling below production cost in order to compete with their international competitors’ price. Online and offline, many producers around the world are talking about the benefits they would get by converting to this method.
When I first visited a super intensive olive plantation I felt as if those young, tiny trees had no air to breathe: no chance they were going to live for hundreds of years, like what normally happened in the past in Puglia. It was a very sad experience!
My food allergy experience made me realize that I have a chance to make a contribution and help stop this, at least in the extra virgin olive oil sector.
Even if what I do is just a drop in the ocean, I need to keep supporting the small olive oil producers I work with.
I select them based on their belief that making high quality and sustainable extra virgin olive oil is a way to have an impact on people’s health as well as a way to respect the earth, trees and nature we inherited and that we are borrowing from the next generations. I work with them in order to make sure that our extra virgin olive oil is high quality, healthy and sustainable. I pay them a price that compensates for all their high costs due to their sustainable production method.
My goal is to keep empowering more and more small olive oil farmers by educating them on how to keep their soil healthy and their plants strong.
My goal is also to keep educating people on how to choose meat, wines, wheat (and flours), oils, ham and other food products that are produced in a way that is healthy for us and sustainable for our earth.
I do believe that buying LOCAL is a nice thing to do in theory…..but it can’t help much if the local farmers are not doing the right things.
I believe that the only way for us to eat food that is good for our health and for the planet is:
-1)to go visit the farmers and see with our eyes how they do things (whether they have grass and flowers or use chemicals, whether they use the super intensive or byodinamic method, whether they rotate crops and have animals for manure; and
-2)to learn how to use how own senses in order to detect defects or quality.
We need to know what we eat. And I hope to contribute to turning people into conscious consumers.
It’s just a drop in the ocean that can make a difference.