Right now, the olive groves of Spain are at the vanguard of agriculture’s fight against the worst effects of climate change.
This year is set to see a second weak harvest, as drought and wildfires continue to affect key olive growing regions.
The falloff in production is very costly for everyone, with farmers suffering losses, government having to pay emergency supports to the sector and consumers facing incredibly high prices for what oil there is available.
According to data from the International Olive Council, the price of extra virgin olive oil hit an average of €842/100kg last month, more than double the price a year ago – and four times what was seen in 2020. See Figure 1.
The olive crop is particularly vulnerable to climate change-driven price increases, as it is harvested from a tree which takes three to five years to start producing fruit.
This means that high prices this year will not lead to a rapid increase in supply, as there is nowhere that can quickly ramp up supply.
The best solution for farmers, the government in Spain and consumers is to have mitigation in place which will allow olive crops to be grown on the current tree stock.
Just to give an indication of how important that current tree stock is, the region of Jaén in southern Spain produces 20% of global olive oil supply from more than 66 million olive trees.
Plans in place
That is not something that can be moved or easily replaced elsewhere. So, there are plans in place to help maintain the multi-billion-euro industry where it is.
The immediate and obvious problem for the olive crop is lack of water. There are three different measures being used to address this.
Firstly, increased construction and enlargement of water reservoirs to hold on to what rain does fall. Secondly, government investment in desalination of seawater for irrigation. Thirdly, and finally, the recycling of wastewater for use on crops.
As part of the government’s hydrological plans 2022-2027 and its special drought plan, Spain will invest €11.8bn to promote desalination and water reuse. Experts in the country see the olive crop moving from a 40:60 rainfall to irrigation ratio for water to a 30:70 ratio.
There is also a problem in the region of desertification, as extremely dry soils are easily eroded. The promotion of cover crops and increased incorporation of organic materials in soils will both improve soil quality and also help reduce CO2 emissions.
For Spain’s olive farmers, there is no choice. Either they adapt to the climate change effects they are already being hit by, or they go out of business.
The old saying that 'an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure' could well be the tagline for climate change measures. Spain is a stark example of the costs involved in mitigating the effects of climate change that are already in place.
While the effects of a changing climate are felt differently in different places, it is critical to take action as early as possible. The best solution is obviously that climate change is halted by measures we take.
Considering how quickly the costs can rise as temperatures rise, there should be a lot more money spent on measures which have a positive climate effect. Governments should be rushing to spend money on anything which will help slow rising global temperatures.
Instead, long and complex planning processes, inconsistent implementation of solar polices, the very slow adoption of AD biogas production and an almost complete failure of forestry policy means much of what Ireland could be doing right now is delayed, derailed or depressed.
As the example of Spanish olive oil shows, the cost of mitigation only rises and cannot be put off when crunch time arrives.