Sustainable Olive Oil Production in Greece

olive tree grove

Olives are an important part of Greece’s cultural identify. (Photo credit: Risteski Goce/Shutterstock)

The olive is deeply ingrained in the nutritional, historical, and cultural identity of Greece. The olive and olive oil industries also have a significant impact on the country’s environment, and so some olive oil producers are beginning to embrace sustainable agriculture techniques to ensure the long-term health of both the industry and the ecosystems in which it thrives.

In Greek mythology, the creation of the olive tree is credited to the goddess Athena. According to legend, a contest was held between Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, god of the sea, to see who would be the protector of a newly-established city. Both were challenged to provide the city with the most precious gift. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and water sprang forth – but it was salty as the sea. Athena knelt down to the ground and buried a seed, which grew into an olive tree. Athena’s gift – which provided food to eat, fuel for lamps and cooking, and wood to build homes – was deemed the more precious gift, and the city was named Athens in her honor.

Mythology aside, the olive oil industry is an important part of the Greek agricultural sector. Europe accounts for 84 percent of the world’s olive oil production, with most of the industry concentrated in the Mediterranean region. Greece is the world’s third highest producer of olive oil, falling below Spain and Italy.

Though numbers vary, it is estimated that there are between 130 and 150 million cultivated olive trees in Greece. These trees produce about 300,000 tons of olive oil annually. There are three main types of olive tree groves in Greece. These include:

  • Small traditional groves (40-250 trees per hectare) are typically located in remote mountainous regions and are characterized by scattered trees. In these small groves, the understory is maintained by grazing, there is little to no fertilizer or pesticide application, and water irrigation is rare.
  • Traditional high-input groves (80-250 trees per hectare) are typically found on hills or rolling plains. In traditional high-input groves, repeated tilling and herbicide application is used to maintain the understory, fertilizer and pesticide application is common, and drip irrigation is utilized.
  • Large modern high-input groves (200-400 trees per hectare) are typically located on flat plains. In these large modern groves, the understory is managed with repeated herbicide application, chemical fertilizer and pesticide application is standard, and drip irrigation is utilized.

There is a marked difference in the average annual yield of a traditional versus a modern grove. Traditional groves typically yield 200 to 1500 kg/hectare, while modern groves can yield up to 10,000 kg/hectare. Aside from having fewer trees, traditional groves also tend to manage the trees naturally, meaning no additional input of water. Without additional water, olive trees tend only to produce olives every other year. When olive trees are actively fertilized and irrigated, they produce olives every year.

According to a report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), European Union Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is responsible for dramatically changing Europe’s agricultural landscape – and not for the better. Most of the budget provided by CAP is spent on production subsidies that encourage intensified production to the detriment of small-scale farmers, who cannot compete with large-scale producers. Intensified olive farming has led to widespread soil erosion and desertification in the Mediterranean region. Also, while traditionally-managed low-input olive groves tend to have a robust community of pollinators, groves that depend on herbicides and pesticides do not, and show less biodiversity in general.

The potential for environmental damage is not limited to the olive grove, however. The olive oil production process also has its own environmental pitfalls. According to Professor Apostolos Vlyssides of the National Technical University of Athens, for every 1000 kilograms of olives processed into 212 kg olive oil, there are produced 359 kg of emissions, 1670 kg of wastewater, and 238 kg of solid wastes . In the Mediterranean region, about 30 million cubic meters of olive oil wastewater are produced on an annual basis. This water cannot be treated in normal wastewater treatment systems and most be detoxified before it can be used in agricultural or industrial processes. In most instances, the wastewater is retained in onsite large evaporation ponds or basins where it is allowed to dry into a semi-solid fraction.

The Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania (MAICH) is leading the way to a more sustainable olive oil production process. MAICH is spearheading a three-year collaboration with Minerva, a Greek olive oil producer. The critical points in the production process that the research is targeting on pilot olive orchards are biodiversity; nutrient, water, and energy use; and carbon dioxide emissions. According to Minerva, they are working with MAICH to develop a new standard that includes the “integrated management of olive orchards and their crops as well as the production and bottling of olive oil.” The intention of the new standard is to “achieve fully documented control over the entire process of producing certified and traceable olive oil” (from the farm to the bottle).

More to Explore
Nutrient, Water, and Energy Budgets of Olive Oil Production Systems
Kalamata Conference Examines Modern Olive Oil Production and Sustainability
Environmental Impact of Olive Oil Processing Wastes
Olive Oil and the Greek Economy
Sustainable Development and Olive Oil
Sustainable Olive Oil Production
EU Policies for Olive Farming: Unsustainable on All Accounts

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