After the unrest in Tunisia this winter, the country’s olive oil industry is not only trying to get back on track, but to up it’s game, and they’re facing some serious road blocks. Tunisia claims to be the third largest olive oil exporter after Spain and Italy. Since exportation figures shift often, this may be true.
Several years ago, Tunisia sunk a lot of money into improving it’s olive oil industry, purchasing better technology and equipment. In the meantime some good things happened, global demand for olive oil increased with world wide consumption rising about 1% a year. You’d think that would be a blessing, but Tunisia and the other Mediterranean olive producing countries are seeing crop yields decreasing at a rate of about 2.5% annually. The decrease in production is due to climate change bringing drier weather and thus, lower fruit yields. Oddly enough this same climate change is what has made parts of the U.S. and other countries able to grow olives now. As I mentioned in my article Olives in Mes-o-po-ta-mia-uh-ah-uh-ahhhhhh at the end of the Ice Age the Mediterranean basin was much cooler, with lush vegetation, and forests. New olive varieties were developed and sustained as the area became drier, but the basin may be reaching the end of profitable production as the bitter end of the Ice Age has arrived.
Up until now, Tunisia has been exporting their olive oil unprocessed and in bulk, and therefore not being engaged in end product quality control. The Tunisian Ministry of Agriculture is already expecting production to be down 31.3% this year. In order to keep up with export demands they will have to dig into their olive oil stockpile to fulfill orders for this year. But, as we know olive oil, even when stored properly, begins to oxidize and unless near future crops increase in yield Tunisia will lose a significant amount of revenue.
If this wasn’t grim enough, Tunisia is facing just what I fear will happen to the U.S. if we join the International Olive Council (IOC). As a member of the IOC, Tunisia is subject to European Union quotas since the biggest olive oil exporters are in the EU and all EU countries are members of the IOC, whether they have anything to do with olive oil or olives other than eating them. The IOC deck is stacked. Tunisian olive farmers claim that EU export quotas which are set by their competitors are destroying their industry. Here is how the EU stacks the deck: In January and February when demand is strong for the fresh, new oil the EU places severe quotas, then toward the end of the year when demand is down, quotas are lifted. What’s a small North African country to do?
Tunisia has a plan to beat the odds. Instead of just bulk shipping they are now marketing their olive oil so they have better quality control. They call it 100% Tunisian and we can find out where we can buy Tunisian olive oil and even how to sell it. Nope, I’m not making any money off this, I just know first hand how good 100% Tunisian olive oil tastes.
Another way Tunisia plans to beat the odds is to explore new export markets – like China. They’ve even started running ads for Tunisian olive oil in Chinese newspapers and on television. China is a land of opportunity for Tunisian farmers and they want to get there with an improved product, with better yields, and before Europe does.
May the sun shine through your branches.