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Olive oil: a sustainable and environmentally considerate choice

May 19, 2021 5 min read

Olive oil: a sustainable and environmentally considerate choice

Consumers are increasingly looking for products that are more environmentally friendly and ethical than previous alternatives.  As a permanent crop, olive groves are much more environmentally friendly than yearly monoculture seed crops (such as rapeseed / canola, sunflower etc.) that require high material inputs in the form of fertilisers, pesticides and water to produce a good yield in a short period of time. 

While much of olive production is carbon neutral or even (as in the case of Opus oléa), "sinks" about 10 kilos of CO2 for every single liter of olive oil produced, not all of it is.   Here are some of the nuances to know about when evaluating an olive oil for its environmental integrity.

There are two variables to the carbon neutral equation in olive oil production:  1) how olives are grown and harvested and 2) the way in which olive oil is produced from the olives.

When we look at olive farming, there is a higher probability of it being carbon neutral or positively contributing, when olives are grown with sustainable, traditional methods and regenerative farming practices. 

The terroir of an olive grove is important too.  Do the trees live in a natural ecosystem away from industrial pollution and motorways with heavy traffic, or are they stuck in the same valley as an automotive plant or a refinery?  Are they at the ideal altitude? Does the soil have the right amount of drainage?  Is the aspect well exposed to the sun?  Is there an abundance of nutrients that comes from a diverse ecosystem?  

An olive grove that is traditionally planted with trees at a 6 to 8 meters distance between them (ie. low density) is much more environmentally friendly than a modern high density or even ultra-high density grove, where the trees are closely planted and trained to look like long hedges of bushes rather than trees. 

In a traditionally planted, low density grove the trees get enough sun from all directions, something that is vital for good quality olives to mature.  There is enough space for the breeze to naturally get through the branches and effect pollination.  The root system of each tree reaches wide enough for the tree to be watered by natural rainfall.  These low-material-input but high labour input types of olive grove tend to produce the highest quality olive fruit and oil.  As a long-established, permanent crop an old olive grove provides carbon storage in its soil.  This contrasts very much with the yearly oil seed crops.

Traditional olive groves are run for quality rather than for quantity of production.  In contrast the densely planted olive hedges of intensive farming are run for quantity over quality.  They generally don't produce high quality oils.  They are serviced with time-efficient and labour-saving harvesting machinery that on the flipside traumatises the generally young trees, making them more susceptible to fungus and other pathogen infections.  The machinery also bruises the olive fruit, causing oxidation and heartbreakingly kills the birds and other creatures that nest in the trees.  The machinery burns fossil fuels which leave their footprint on the fruit of the harvest as well.  Closely planted olive trees have a higher need for water and nutrients and use up more resources, thereby depleting the environment.  These plantations due to their lack of space, sunlight and aeration are more prone to diseases, necessitating the use of more and mostly chemical pesticides.  Heavy use of agrochemicals often results in runoff into bodies of water polluting them as well as contaminating the groundwater.  All this results in environmental imbalance and harm that the traditional, sustainable groves are not subject to.

Old and established groves cannot be harvested with harvesting machines because of the shape/height of the trees and the access to them.  The best run groves only use electric small handheld machinery for pruning and aiding the harvest as it is done by hand.  This type of machinery is charged offsite and doesn't contaminate the vegetation with combustion fumes.  Sustainably run groves need large numbers of man power to be tended to, especially during the very important pruning season and during harvesting season. 

In groves that collect both the olives that have fallen on the ground and the olives that are shaken off the tree, the ground in the grove is generally kept bare with herbicides (such as Glyphosate) to facilitate this collection.  Collecting olives fallen on the ground produces inferior oils.  Quality olive oil producers only collect olives directly from the tree.  This is aided by keeping a herbaceous ground cover in the grove, which helps avoiding muddy conditions and helps the laying out of nets under the trees on which olives can fall once they have been raked or shaken off the tree.  A herbaceous ground cover is always the sign of a good grove and has many added environmental benefits as it protects from soil erosion, helps with water management and homes many beneficial insect and other species.

Regenerative farming will not use plastic materials in the grove but rather biodegradable ones, it will use organic animal dung and compost as fertiliser instead of the more convenient but less environmentally sound chemical fertilisers, it takes measures for water conservation and pruning by-product management and it will support the biodiversity of the grove with a number of effective measures tested throughout the ages.     

Moving on from the management of the grove to the production of the oil, the general rule is that the higher the quality of the oil, the lower its negative environmental impact.  This is the opposite from other types of products where higher qualities are achieved with more and more processing and refining ie. with more material inputs and higher environmental costs.

The highest quality olive oil, which is of the extra virgin category uses only mechanical processes for the extraction of the oil.  At no point in time are chemicals used to leach oil out of the olive mass or is heat above 27 degrees Celsius applied to get more oil out of the olive fruit.

Only once the best quality delicate oil runs clear of the crushed olive fruit, will further processing with heat and solvents be applied to the remaining olive mass to get the lower qualities of oil.  Oil of inferior quality often needs to be treated further in a refinery, where it is deodorised to eliminate the unpleasant odors of processing or less then ideal overall treatment.  These additional treatments to low-quality oil represent added environmental cost.

Higher quality oil is achieved with state-of-the art extraction machinery, that minimises oxidation and contaminations with precise calibrations of various settings and that is able to maintain the highest hygiene standards.  The most advanced such machinery is prevalent in countries in the EU (such as Greece), where the olive industry has been furthered and supported with significant investments in research and technology.

The packaging of the oil is to be considered as well.  Plastic PET bottles, as found in all supermarkets, are an inexpensive choice of container that doesn't do the oil or the environment any favours.  You will not find an outstanding oil in a PET bottle.  UV-glass (as it is used to preserve our Opus oléa) is clean and widely recyclable.  We further take measures to minimise packaging and this remains an ongoing goal and process for our brand.  Optimisation never ends, from packing our transport pallets in the most efficient way to using recyclable materials, we will never stop at more and more improvements and will continue to consider more and more variables to the complex environmental equation.  We aim to tread as lightly as possible.

To summarise, when it comes to olive oil production, the adoption of environmentally friendly practices (ie. practices that result in maintaining and improving the environment) results in higher quality product, which in turn meets higher market demands and results in a more competitive product.