Olive Oil Shortage Looms as Prices and Demand Rise

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Extreme heat, bacterial outbreaks, and severe flooding have slashed crop yields throughout the Mediterranean, resulting in skyrocketing costs.

The Greeks call it “liquid gold” for a reason. Olive oil, that most luscious and versatile of vegetable oils, is becoming so expensive that British chef Jamie Oliver has likened it to a spoonful of foie gras or caviar: “The really good stuff is worth every penny,” he told Bloomberg. As prices rise, olive oil is sadly becoming more of a luxury ingredient than a healthy pantry staple.

The root cause is out of the human control. Unpredictable weather in the Mediterranean countries of Greece, Italy, and Spain, where most of the world’s olive oil is produced, has resulted in low crop yields. The Washington Post reports:

“In Italy, unseasonably hot and muggy temperatures have attracted fruit flies and bacteria, damaging groves. Farmers say their yields will be cut in half this year. In Greece, a heat wave could cost growers more than a quarter of their crop. Flooding in Spain's most fertile regions has decimated its harvest. Overall, experts say, global production is set to fall about 8 percent.”

There are other factors at play, however. As global demand continues to climb, particularly from new, insatiable markets like China, olive oil stockpiles throughout the Mediterranean region are declining, pushing prices upward. Growing interest in specialty oils, such as avocado and coconut, are also making a dent in the olive oil market, particularly when these oils cost less than olive oil.

Ongoing currency volatility is a real concern, too. It’s estimated that Britons will pay up to a third more for olive oil by the end of 2017, as the British pound loses value. Jamie Oliver has announced the closure of six Italian restaurants in the UK, due in part to the high cost of olive oil. A spokeswoman said that “increased costs for sourcing products such as Italian olive oil have made the branches ‘quite unsustainable’.”

Walter Zanre, head of Filippo Berio, the top-selling olive oil brand in the UK, is very worried. Tuscany is predicted to produce 50 percent less olive oil this year, thanks to an uncontrollable outbreak of Xylella fastidiosa bacteria in over a million trees; meanwhile, the wholesale cost has risen by 40 percent. Zanre told The Telegraph:

“If costs keep going up and customers refuse to pay more, what do we do? Do we make the bottles smaller? Or do you try and cut corners? That’s how you end up with a horse meat scandal.”

It’s an oil shortage of the kind we don’t usually think about, but one that could soon affect your own cooking.