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Climate change’s latest victim: the olive oil you cook with

The world’s largest olive-oil producer is expecting a dismal harvest this year

An olive grove outside the Andalusian village of Priego de Cordoba near Cordoba. In Spain, the world's largest producer of olive oil, drought and abnormally high temperatures are causing fears of a “catastrophe” for the sector, which is already reeling from a very difficult 2022. (Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images)
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Olive oil lovers might have to start pouring less of the golden fruity liquid into the pan. A prolonged dry spell in Spain, the world’s biggest olive oil producer, has parched olive groves and scorched blooms, slashing this season’s harvest.

The effects of the drought are reverberating around the world, which gets half of its olive oil from the Mediterranean country. This week, global oil prices hit their highest level in 26 years, $5,989.7 per metric ton, according to data from the International Monetary Fund.

It’s the latest example of how climate change is showing up in supermarket aisles as the weather becomes more extreme.

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With Spain and other olive-oil-producing countries still experiencing dry conditions, American shoppers shouldn’t expect lower prices anytime soon.

“Right now our prices are high, but I don’t see any reasons why they’re going to come down,” said John Cancilla, an economist who follows the olive oil industry. The higher prices are already slowing demand among American consumers, he added.

“We don’t know how this situation is going to end, but the forecasts are not encouraging,” said Ximo Sempere, CEO of an olive mill in Alicante, Spain, in an email.

His company, Almazara El Tendre, usually processes about 5 million kilos of olives. Last season, they didn’t get to 3 million kilos.

A string of bad seasons

Spain has been experiencing lower than normal rainfall since October. In April, the country reported the driest and warmest conditions for that month in Spain’s history. It only received about a fifth of average precipitation, according to the country’s weather agency, or AEMET for its acronym in Spanish.

As a result, the olive oil powerhouse is set to harvest half as much this season compared to last. Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is predicting the country will produce only 680,000 tonnes from the 2022-2023 season — compared to nearly 1.5 million tonnes the previous year.

The drop has contributed to a run-up in global olive oil prices since October, prompting Spain’s agriculture minister Luis Planas to fret about the Spanish kitchen staple becoming a “luxury product” in a November interview with radio station Onda Cero.

Olive oil producers worry about another lackluster harvest. Pilar Peláez, owner of the olive farm and mill La Grama in northern Spain, can’t recall a time when there was so little rain. For Peláez, who oversees 33 hectares, about 82 acres, of olive groves, the clock to recover some of the crop for this year is running out. Her only hope is getting some late spring or early fall showers.

“If the situation continues to worsen, the crops that can be grown in areas such as ours will be further reduced,” Peláez said.

In one province in southern Spain, Jaén, communities have taken to prayer, earlier this month holding a procession asking for rain, said Ana Ortega, whose family sells the region’s olive oil at Aceteira Jaenera, a shop in the city of Jaén.

“I wish it had an effect, but the truth is that it hasn’t helped either,” Ortega wrote in an email in Spanish.

To counter the expected hit to her business, she is introducing new products including pomace oil, a neutral-tasting oil produced from olive pulp, and wild olive oil. “Certainly, the situation is very worrying,” Ortega said.

For California producers, too much rain

Spain’s olive oil production isn’t the only place that’s been impacted by weather.

Farmers across California are also holding their breath about crop size for different reasons. Flowers that are generally in full bloom, are just beginning to open, according to Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, the director of Extra Virgin Alliance, a trade association representing olive oil producers.

The state has the opposite problem than Spain: a lot of rain. From December to April, a slew of storms slammed California with torrential downpours, record snowfall and intense flooding.

The winter’s rain left McEvoy Ranch orchards in Petaluma, Calif. “very moist and lush,” said President Samantha Dorsey in an email. The family-owned ranch in the northern part of the state is hoping for a promising crop this year, but they are still waiting for their trees to reach full bloom.

Weather “can make or break the entire season’s production,” Dorsey said.

But the impact of the late bloom on olive crop growth won’t be clear until the fruit forms in early summer.

Climate change is changing olive growers’ playbook in terms of predicting harvest season, Kicenik Devarenne said. Weather patterns that used to be relatively reliable “are now out of whack,” she said.

Scott Dance contributed to this report.