Italy’s production of olive oil fell to a 25-year low of 185,000 tons last year — a more than 57 percent drop in quantity from the preceding year.
Amid the decline, which experts principally attribute to climate change-related problems, Italian producers are innovating to combat those problems while improving quality.
The need for innovations is dire: the decline in production is threatening thousands of businesses and causing a huge loss of jobs, especially in the southern regions. And, now that olive oil is produced successfully outside the Mediterranean, Italy’s market share is at risk.
Tensions flared last month as producers and farmers protested in Rome calling for support and emergency government aid to protect their centuries-old tradition.
The poor harvests have been blamed on extreme weather, which can lead to olive fly infestations.
More drastically, though, down in the Puglia region, which produces about half of Italy’s olive oil, the bacteria Xylella fastidiosa — transmitted by insects and aided by the use of weed killer — is killing thousands of olive trees, including ancient, monumental ones.
In an effort to stall the spread of the disease, the state decided to systematically destroy thousands of trees. However, experts at Coldiretti, the Italian agriculture association, tell ABC News this is not being done fast enough.
While researchers race to find ways to curtail the olive fly and Xylella bacteria, a new generation of olive oil producers are emerging who are attentive to climate, terrain and, above all, quality.
With 80 percent of Italy’s high-quality olive oil sold abroad, these producers are attempting to carve out a niche in the worldwide business, seeing top quality, distinctive products as the future.
“We are making an even better oil than that produced by our forefathers,” Nicola Di Noia, Coldiretti olive oil expert, told ABC News. “Our olive oil must become the Ferrari of olive oil production.”
Pioneers in the field are focusing on new technology and local varieties of trees that can better withstand climate change. By studying new methods of growing, picking, pressing and bottling, they are producing a 100 percent natural product with improved health benefits.
For instance, while olives are now picked earlier in the year all over Italy, Castello Monte Vibiano Vecchio in Umbria began experimenting with harvesting olives at night for a better product.
“Temperatures have risen greatly over the years, and as we pick olives earlier now, we try to avoid picking them above 15 degrees centigrade so as to avoid the enzymes from modifying and fermentation starting,” owner Lorenzo Fasola Bologna tells ABC News. “The results were spectacular with an increase in polyphenols [which improves health benefits].”
More attention is also being given to the traceability of olive oil in an effort to protect local production and stop fraud. The Italian National Center for Research started the DNA certification of oils, and Monte Vibiano received the first world DNA certificate last November.
“What this means,” says Fasola Bologna, “is that the consumer knows exactly where our olives come from and that the product comes from the Umbrian region of Italy.”
Other experimentation is also underway: Le Tre Colonne in Puglia is working with ultrasound devices, while Frantoio Cutrera in Sicily is using cameras to find and remove damaged olives.
Another producer in Umbria, Frantoio Gaudenzi, is working on a project based on renewable energy that can blow pollen through the grove if there is not enough wind.
Johnny Madge, an Englishman and olive oil expert who lives in Italy, told ABC News he believes Italy will become the most exciting producer of olive oil because of the wide variety of olives — there are over 600 varieties Italy, more than any other country in the world — and use of new technology, especially in olive milling.
“The new technology means that we can now ‘hear’ each different olive variety in a way we never could before,” Madge said. “They are now ‘expressed;’ before they were ‘muffled’ as olives were picked too late, milled too long after picking, and old dirty mills were used.”
He added, “These mills make oils of character because they use great cleaning technology, work at low temperatures with minimal friction and oxidization, and are filtered immediately rather than using separators that stress the oil.”
Massimo Ambrosio at the Fattoria Ambrosio in Campania, who started producing oil just three years ago with prize-winning results, thinks a revolution is underway in Italy.
“Other EU countries, like Spain, produce oil that costs even less than half what Italian olive oil costs, and Spain can produce five to six times the quantity,” he told ABC News. “[So,] the new trend in Italy is to focus on quality and stimulate the consumer to want higher quality olive oil. … The challenge is to see if Italy will be able to continue to produce the quality at reasonable prices.”
Di Noia stresses that consumers still need to learn about the product.
“People have learned the difference between a carton of wine and a bottle of Barolo,” he said. “The same has to be done with olive oil.”
Madge has observed people from across the world growing more curious about olive oil and its health benefits, but there is still a long way to go before the average consumer understands the value and taste of exceptionally good extra-virgin olive oil.
In the meantime, producer Ambrosio said, the goal is to “try to make oils that are balanced like a musical symphony.” He is certain that when the quality of the olives picked is perfect, that is not difficult.
ABC News’ Alexandra Svokos contributed to this report.
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