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Olive Oil: A Soon-Ending Tale
I was planning on writing a story about how olive oil changed the world, but after sleepless nights of research, it seemed more fitting to tell the story of olive oil’s imminent death.
Olive oil starts in the, believe it or not, mighty olive. The olive originated in the Mediterranean, descending from the oleaster. Around 3150 BCE, people made an important discovery about the bitter plant: it tasted good when pickled in salt, and when crushed, its pit gave top-quality oil (Graber & Twilley). Edible olives have existed since 3150 BCE, around the early Bronze Age. The olive and its oil spilled westward from the eastern Mediterranean Coast where it was discovered. It spread to much of Western Europe and North Africa(Vossen). The olive’s importance can be seen across cultures. The Greeks started to present the olive branch to the winners of the Olympics in the 7th century BC. Olive oil production was common for people of all walks of life in ancient societies. Traces of tools for oil production could be found in excavation sites up from Crete to Palestine (Kapellakis et al.). In other words, olive oil was everywhere in the Mediterranean.
When people think of Mediterranean countries, they may not think of this one: Tunisia. Tunisia, located in North Africa, is an intersection of European, Asian, and African cultures. Under Arabian rule during the 7th century, trade and infrastructure in Tunisia flourished. Irrigations were improved, contributing to the growth of the olive oil trade (Lapidus 302). In the 1800s, following the French colonization of Tunisia, the olive thrived again thanks to a colonial administrator’s promotion of the fruit. Today, Tunisia exports award-winning olive oil, yet its oil is not widely known because it is sold under “Italian or Spanish brand names” (Parker). However, the local olive oil business is in ruins.
In a little house on a plot of land in the Sfax area, Mohamed Sid sits with his face in his hands. The single light bulb in the dim room flickers. Mohamed looks up and turns the light off. He cannot afford to waste electricity right now, not when he barely has enough money to keep his family fed. In his moments of panic, Mohamed thinks back to his grandfather.
On a bright morning, his grandfather might have woken up feeling proud of his olive trees. He may have had a thousand trees, enough to give ten trees to all his friends and still have plenty left over. His trees feed, clothe, and sustain his family, thus making Mohamed’s life possible. In the 1900s, olive oil sustained Tunisia, being “one of its two most valuable exports” (Mckay). All was well for his grandfather.
Mohamed looks up. The rain pounds on the roof and windows, threatening to invade the house. The rain, usually a blessing, now turned into a curse. Too many olives made for too much olive oil. The sudden increase in supply has driven down the price of the unit price of olive oil. It now costs only about $1.5 dollars per kilogram. Mohamed and his country depended on olive oil. It “constitutes half the country’s agricultural exports” and almost 10 percent of employed Tunisians work to make olive oil (Parker). Many Tunisian dreams and livelihoods depended on olive oil.
When the rain stopped, the heat comes back. Mohamed looks out at his trees. Without irrigation, the trees are susceptible to overheating and dying. Because of extreme heat caused by climate change, Spain has reported a loss of $1 billion in its olive sector (Segal & Bautista). Mohamed knows that his country relies too much on olive oil and will not be able to take the same hit. As if he didn’t have enough to worry about already, there are recent reports the Xylella fastidiosa landing in Europe. Originally endemic to America, but in 2013 “olive trees in the Apulia region of Southern Italy began exhibiting leaf scorch symptoms that were later confirmed to be caused by X. fastidiosa. Since then, thousands of olive trees have died” It was only a matter of time before the virus made its way to Mohamed’s grove. Once it does, his profit will drop even more. If his trees get sick, they may go the same way as Italy’s trees: severely pruned and removed (Castro et al.). At this rate, the exhausted Mohamed is left with no choice. He is going to sell his farm (Parker).
Mohamed Sid’s story is not an isolated incident. “‘It’s a catastrophe, especially for small farmers,’ said Faouzi Zayani, vice president of national farmers union Synagri” (Parker. Without olives, there will be no more Tunisian olive oil. Disease and climate change threaten to wipe out a thousand-year-old oil culture.
Graber, Nicola Twilley, Cynthia. “How Olive Oil Became Green Gold.” The Atlantic, 8 Dec.
Accessed 27 Sept. 2022.
Vossen, Paul. “Olive Oil: History, Production, and Characteristics of the World’s Classic Oils.”
HortScience, vol. 42, no. 5, Aug. 2007, pp. 1093–1100,
Kapellakis, I.E., et al. “Olive Oil History, Production and By-Product Management.” Reviews in
Environmental Science and Bio/Technology, Apr. 2007.
Lapidus, Ira. A History of Islamic Societies. 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press.
Mckay, Donald Vernon. “The French in Tunisia.” Geographical Review, vol. 35, no. 3, July
1945, p. 368, 10.2307/211326. Accessed 16 Nov. 2020.
Parker, Claire. “Tunisia Is One of the World’s Top Olive Oil Producers. But Now, It’s Facing a
Crisis of Too Much.” Washington Post,
Segal, David, and José Bautista. “The Olive Oil Capital of the World, Parched.” The New York
Times, 10 Sept. 2022,
Accessed 27 Sept. 2022.
Castro, Claudia, et al. “Xylella Fastidiosa: A Reemerging Plant Pathogen That Threatens Crops
Globally.” PLOS Pathogens, vol. 17, no. 9, 9 Sept. 2021, p. e1009813,
10.1371/journal.ppat.1009813. Accessed 2 Dec. 2021.
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