Heat threatens 50% of olive oil harvest in the midst of food crisis

Production in Catalonia will collapse due to the drought over the past two years, according to Unió de Pagesos

3 min
A trailer unloads olives at the Maials cooperative, in Segrià, in an archive image.

BarcelonaOlive oil production will suffer a sharp drop this year in Catalonia. The causes of the reduction are the successive heat waves that have affected the country since April and the drought accumulated over the past two years.

The drop expected for 2022 is between 30% and 50% of production compared to the average harvest of recent years, according to Jordi Pascual, head of olive production of agricultural union Unió de Pagesos. In fact, the Spanish Minister of Agriculture, Luis Planas, already warned a few weeks ago that the high temperatures would have a direct impact on the sector in Spain. "If it does not rain in the coming weeks or temperatures do not drop, the harvest will be significantly lower than in previous years," the minister said last week in an interview to Efe.

Evolution of the price of olive oil
Testimonial price of virgin olive oil from 0.8º to 2º in Spain. Weekly data in euros per 100 kg since January 2021

"It will definitely be affected," Pascual assures. He points to record heat recorded this year, while recalling that "olive trees have been enduring a continuous drought for years." In fact, except for 2020, which had a few months of heavy rainfall in late winter and throughout the spring, both 2021 and this year are being unusually dry.

For example, between July last year and this year, a large part of northeastern Catalonia, regions such as Gironès, Baix and Alt Empordà and Pla de l'Estany, suffered an exceptional situation of drought according to data from Meteocat, Catalonia's meteorological service. A rainfall of under 300 litres per square metre was recorded, when the figure is usually between 500 and 1,000. A similar situation was also recorded in other parts of the country, such as the north of Barcelonès, the south of Osona, the north of Alt Urgell, the south of Alt Penedès and the municipalities around the Montserrat massif.

This drought is added to the fact that this year, from a meteorological point of view, spring has been very short: "In April we went from very heavy frosts, below zero, to temperatures of over 30 ºC in a matter of days," says Pascual. "This is not assimilated by the tree," he adds about the impact of sudden temperature variations on olive trees.

The result is directly noticeable in the trees, which suffer what are called "purges": to defend itself from the heat, the tree dries part of the fruit, which ends up spoiling and falling to the ground. "What we are seeing is abnormal for this crop," says the head of Unió de Pagesos on the high number of purges that growers are registering throughout Catalonia.

The loss of production due to the heat is widespread in Spain, as the minister advanced. In Spain as a whole, agrarian organisation Asaja puts this year's olive production at 50% of the usual average, although in some areas it may be even worse. For example, in Extremadura, the production can drop by 80%. The president of the employers' association APAG Extremadura –affiliated to Asaja–, Juan Metidieri, indicated that 2022 will record "the worst harvest in history", according to statements collected by Europa Press.

The fall in production will have effects on the price of olive oil in Catalonia, which has already risen since March, as can be seen in the graph, after rises also recorded in the spring of 2021. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has this year pushed up the price of sunflower oil, as half of its worldwide production originated in Ukraine. With the conflict, the supply of this product plunged, causing other vegetable oils to also rise in price, since in some cases they can be used as substitute products.

Uneven drops

Production falls, however, will not be the same in all regions. For example, in the Baix Ebre and Montsià area, 2021 was a good year, so this 2022 is expected to be below average. To the unfavourable climatic conditions is added the fact that the olive varieties of that area –morruda, farga and sevillenca– are more prone to suffer decreases in harvest after a good year, something that does not occur so much with the arbequina variety, the most extensive in the Camp de Tarragona and the Lleida plain, according to Pascual.

In this sense, for example, Les Garrigues expects a "lower than usual" harvest, but similar to 2021, says Pascual. In 2021 production fell because the fields were badly affected by the passage of storm Filomena in January, but the storm had a "natural pruning" effect that strengthened the trees, which will offset the drop in production now caused by the drought and heat waves.

The drought is not only affecting olive trees, but many other crops. One of those that has suffered more evident changes due to the heat are vines, which have produced very low harvests for three years in a row, first due to the mildew plague in 2020 and 2021 also due to the lack of rainfall. For example, in the Penedès, the harvest began at the beginning of this month, while in Segrià it started even earlier, in July. In both cases, it is the earliest harvest on record for more than a century.