We're about to suffer a worldwide olive oil shortage

By Amanda Erickson

Erratic weather in Italy, Greece and Spain has cut the supply, but demand is rising - along with prices. Photo / Washington Post
Erratic weather in Italy, Greece and Spain has cut the supply, but demand is rising - along with prices. Photo / Washington Post

It might be the saddest quote you read today: "Olive oil is becoming a luxury."

That comes courtesy of Italian chef Francesco Mazzei, who runs the Italian restaurant Sartoria in London. Mazzei depends on olive oil for much of his cooking. But because of a shortage, he told Bloomberg News, prices are skyrocketing. He's even had to raise menu prices to compensate.

Among chefs in London, it's a common refrain. Ben Tish, who runs a Spanish and Italian tapas restaurant, told Bloomberg that he buys about 100 litres of olive oil a week, to top grilled flatbread, mix into aioli and prepare luscious olive oil cakes. He now pays about 13 per cent more, 26 pounds ($45) for five litres.

And things are only going to get worse. Experts are predicting a worldwide shortage in the next couple of months, jacking up prices around the globe.

The problem is several terrible years in the making. Erratic weather in Spain, Italy and Greece, where the bulk of the world's olive oil is produced, has decimated crops. In Italy, unseasonably hot and muggy temperatures have attracted fruit flies and bacteria, damaging groves. Farmers say their yields will be cut in half this year. In Greece, a heat wave could cost growers more than a quarter of their crop. Flooding in Spain's most fertile regions has decimated its harvest. Overall, experts say, global production is set to fall about 8 per cent.

These shortages come as demand for the product has skyrocketed around the world. China has recently become enamored with the stuff, consuming nearly US$200 million ($276m) worth of olive each year. The country's nouveau riche see the product as a healthier alternative to other fatty oils. They import nearly 99 per cent of what they use.

With increased demand and less supply, prices are climbing. Since October, the cost of extra-virgin olive oil has jumped 30 per cent in Italy, to US$6.15 a kilogram. In Spain, the cost is up about 10 per cent, near a seven-year high, according to the International Olive Council in Madrid. In Greece, it's 17 per cent. And forecasters say the worst is yet to come.

Brits may be particularly hard hit, paying a third more by the end of the year. It's a big extra cost, especially since the British pound is quite volatile in the wake of the Brexit vote.

So far, American consumers have been immune to the impact of the rising price of olive oil, courtesy of the strong dollar. And farmers in California have begun producing olives and pressing out oil. Their profits have jumped 10 per cent in the past five years.

The United States, however, produces only 2 per cent of the world's olive oil. As Walter Zanre, head of the United Kingdom's best-selling olive oil brand, told the Telegraph, "2017 will be very bad for olive oil."

- Washington Post

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