'Olive oil is part of our identity'

Manuel Parras

How important are olive groves and olive oil for the Mediterranean?

An outstanding importance. Not only because of the income and employment that the olive sector generates, but also because it is part of our culture and our customs. It is part of our identity, linking the Mediterranean with the Mediterranean Diet, that is, a way of conceiving not only how to feed ourselves, but also how to relate to each other. Furthermore, the olive grove shapes the Mediterranean landscape, both inland and on the coast. Finally, the olive grove generates public goods, often little valued by the olive growers themselves, but transcendental, as long as the olive grove is well cared for: it prevents erosion, anchors the population, maintains biodiversity, etc.


What would you highlight about the evolution of the olive sector in the last 5 years?

Several issues. From the supply side, the expansion of modern olive groves (intensive and super-intensive). Also the increase in the quality of olive oils, to which this expansion has contributed, but also the early harvesting in traditional olive groves.

On the demand side, the increasing appreciation of EVOO, the increase in demand in foreign markets and the decline in demand in traditional markets: Spain, Italy and Greece, especially in the latter two.

We face important challenges in Spain, such as increasing demand among young people, in the HORECA channel and in institutions.


The transformation of olive cultivation models is unstoppable, how do you think the traditional system will coexist with the new ones in the future?

Certainly, there is an olive grove, let's call it traditional, which cannot be subject to intensification due to orographic issues. Because if there is no water available, you can go to a minor intensification in dry land. Now, if you want to go to a stronger intensification, super-intensive, then the availability of water must be high. This is where I see the first problem, water availability. And if you have the resources to super-intensify, you have to see where it is convenient to do it and where it can be done. For example, in the province of Jaén there is a very small plot size and the owners have several plots spread over several kilometers. Some kind of collaboration in the management of the plots would be necessary to be able to intensify by achieving economies of scale. On the other hand, if there is a tendency towards superintensification, it cannot be with picual and, consequently, extra virgin olive oils from Jaén could not be differentiated with certified quality figures.

In summary, a distinction must be made between intensification and superintensification. The coexistence between traditional and intensive olive groves is already taking place. Without problems. The highly intensified olive grove will compete via prices and the traditional one has to do it via differentiation, transferring to market segments willing to pay for it that their oils come from an olive grove that generates, in addition to a healthy and excellent product, public goods.

One initiative, in this sense, is the Operational Group led by UPA, in which LIDL, Migasa, Izertis and the University of Jaén participate, by which it is intended to market -it is already being done- an EVOO from traditional olive groves, with clear labeling and a product certified by Blockchain. Another way to differentiate is with the water footprint certificate, ecological, etc.

And to all this, it must be added that cost reduction must never be forgotten, even in traditional olive growing, through collaboration agreements and, most importantly, professionalization, which is the measure that saves the most costs and generates the most income: human capital.

In summary, a distinction must be made between intensification and superintensification. The coexistence between traditional and intensive olive groves is already taking place.

The market is experiencing a very particular situation this year in terms of production and prices, what measures do you consider necessary to reverse the situation?

First of all, we must remember that we are in a social market economy, where the law of supply and demand works. The situation has led to an increase in prices because there is little supply, true, but, above all, because there is a faithful demand. Household demand is falling to levels of around 20% so far in 2023; however, there has been no significant increase in sunflower or pomace consumption. With data from the MAPA Food Consumption Panel, comparing January-April 2022 with the same period in 2023, olive oil consumption has decreased by 21.76%, but sunflower has only increased by 0.40% and pomace by 7.69%.

In addition, the pressure on prices has been greater because when prices were low in Spain, many intelligent companies looked for markets abroad and those markets, those customers, obviously have to be supplied.


What is the present and future of the olive sector?

There are many olive sectors and each one has its challenges. A couple of years ago we published a book: Strategies for a more competitive olive growing, https://www.catedraaceitesdejaen.com/download-category/libros/, promoted by the Diputación Provincial de Jaén, focused on olive growing in Jaén, which is, as we know, very important in setting world prices, for example. But also for its role as an element of cohesion and territorial development in a province that loses population year after year. In this book, we have compiled 9 prioritized and hierarchical strategies to achieve a more competitive and sustainable olive oil sector in Jaén that generates income and employment, but also does so in a sustained manner over time, generating public goods and moving towards a greener olive growing sector. These nine strategies, although focused on olive growing in Jaén, are perfectly transferable to other olive-growing territories. In addition, a video has been produced for each strategy.

Ø Increasing the size of olive farms. To promote farm management sections in the current olive oil cooperatives.

Ø Efficient communication of the benefits of olive oils, their differences and the culture linked to their production process.

Ø To increase the sector's income by differentiating the supply of olive oils. Attributes and positioning.

Ø To improve the overall quality of olive oils through early harvesting.

Ø Intensify olive grove production (reconversion of traditional olive groves to intensive single or hedgerow olive groves).

Ø To promote organic production and other productions with environmental certification (integrated, biodynamic, living olive groves, carbon footprint, etc.)" is perceived with a lower degree of difficulty.

Ø To increase the business dimension and concentration of supply", "to establish vertical and horizontal strategic alliances between operators in the olive oil value chain".

Ø To valorize the by-products of olive groves and olive oil production".

Ø To promote olive oil tourism.


How can the Olive Oil World Congress help to promote the development of the sector, both inside and outside Spain?

Scientific and discussion forums, in which academics and technicians from companies in the olive oil value chains participate, are not only convenient, but absolutely necessary for the advancement of the sector, to make it more competitive. In these forums, in addition to sharing our findings, we academics must do something even more important: keep our ears open to the problems and opportunities that the sector brings to us. It is an exchange that has to go in both directions. And when this happens, the benefits are not only mutual, but also benefit society as a whole. I am sure that the Olive Oil World Congress will successfully fulfill this objective.