Homer called it “liquid gold”, Hippocrates dubbed it “the great healer” and Galen, one of antiquity’s leading medical scholars and physicians, praised it for its positive health effects. While Aussies might have been a bit slow to the party, our taste for the silky ambrosia is only growing – we now each consume around two litres of olive oil per year.
So it seems like bad news that horrific growing conditions and abysmal yields in Spain and Italy, two of the world’s biggest producers of olive oil, are threatening global supplies. Spanish growers, responsible for nearly half of the world’s olive oil supplies, are in turmoil as centuries-old groves are decimated by Europe’s worst drought in 500 years. Research suggests that parts of the Iberian Peninsula are drier than they’ve been in 1200 years. It’s a similar story in Italy, where a state of emergency has been declared in five northern regions due to the drought – the worst in 70 years.
But lucky for us, local olive oil producers have ramped up operations in recent decades and are turning out some of the world’s finest olive oil on a massive scale.
Save 20% when you buy two or more Broadsheet books. Order now to make sure they arrive in time for Christmas.SHOP NOW
Cobram Estate, which sells olive oil under its eponymous line and the Red Island brand, is one of the world’s biggest olive oil producers. With nearly 2.5 million trees, its groves in Victoria alone produce more olive oil than France, Israel and even the USA. In 2021, it produced more than 16 million litres.
Cobram’s share of Australian supermarket sales is 49 per cent, compared to the 27 per cent held by the three big brands – Moro, La Espanola and Carbonell – that rely on Spanish imports. Woolworths Extra Virgin accounts for six per cent of the market share and is sourced in Australia, while Coles’s home brand is made in Spain and may be impacted by the growing conditions.
While Cobram’s 2022 production is down on last year’s record-breaking season, it was up 52 per cent on 2020. This fluctuation is normal for olive trees, which have a biennial cycle (meaning yield can change dramatically in alternating years). Cobram Estate says it’s anticipating “a substantial increase” on this year’s crop in 2023.
In more good news, even though the company has been hit by the rising cost of fuel, fertiliser, electricity and freight, the pressure’s been offset by a dramatic reduction in water costs thanks to Australia’s seriously soggy last few years. And since olive trees rely on wind, not bees, for pollination, the dastardly Varroa mite plague wreaking havoc on almond, stone fruit, apple and cherry harvests will have no impact on Cobram’s olive groves. Looks like our salad dressings are safe for now.