'We have to convey to the consumer that EVOO has a very specific value and, therefore, it has to be paid for'

What is the situation of the olive oil sector in Italy?

We come from two complex campaigns, in which the uncertainties of global geopolitics and the effects of climate change have created a situation that is not easy to manage. Olive oil production at the end of the campaign should be around 300 thousand tonnes, up 20% compared to the 240 thousand of the previous campaign, but with quantities lower than the 350 thousand tonnes of the best campaigns and, even more, compared to the needs of the internal Italian market and export, equal to approximately 1 million tonnes. However, the contraction in consumption in modern distribution did not exceed 10%, so the collapse, feared by many, did not occur. If anything, we have witnessed an overall repositioning of extra virgin on the shelf, which has practically eliminated the difference between extra virgin olive oil of EU origin and Italian oil, whose sales have grown significantly in the national market in a context of reduction.

Packaging, energy and logistics have further contributed to the increase in costs. Easy solutions on these issues do not exist, all companies have tried to contain expenses by evaluating alternatives.

What are the main olive tree varieties grown in Italy and how have they evolved in recent years?
In Italy there are more than 500 cultivars, strongly linked to the territory and the local olive growing tradition. Those considered most profitable, however, are a few dozen in total (just to name a few, leccino, frantoio, ogliarola, coratina, carolea, biancolilla, canino, moraiolo, dritta, ottobratica, peranzana, ravece, itrana, taggiasca, bosana, pendolino). In our opinion, production must be implemented, focusing on the most resistant cultivars and on the contribution of precision agriculture, essential to counteract the lack of water and soil erosion.

What are the forecasts for the current season, in terms of volume and quality?
Making predictions is very difficult. It is clear that if this spiral fueled by drought and international tensions persists in the next campaign, it will not be eased anytime soon. The problem is that the reduction in the quantity of olive oil and the increase in prices, within a scenario of inflation and economic uncertainty, could distance consumers from this product, directing them towards cheaper alternatives.

According to EU data, in the last 5 years, olive oil production has fallen across Europe, halving end-of-season stocks. Even Italy's production recovery in recent months is unable to compensate for the drastic decline in other producing countries. However, there is no going back and after this difficult period it will not be so automatic to revisit those promotions at a bargain price which have greatly damaged the image of this food. Is the olive oil-commodity era over? It would seem so, fortunately for us. ASSITOL, which has always fought against undercosting, has been repeating for years that olive oil is an olive juice rich in vitamins and polyphenols, not a detergent, and it is therefore unacceptable to treat it as a cheap product, to attract customers to sound of reductions. Its ability to give well-being is unique, its taste is unparalleled. The right time has therefore come to convey to the consumer the message that extra virgin olive oil has a very specific value, therefore it must be paid for appropriately, as already happens with wine.

Intensive production in Italy has contributed to the great revolution in olive growing in your country. How does this situation affect the evolution of production and the relationships between the different links in the chain?
In Italy, intensive olive growing covers no more than 30% of the entire olive oil production. Certainly expanding it would be of great help in a sector which, to this day, is severely deficient and in urgent need of modernisation. Drought increases water stress in olive groves grown in this way, however in some Italian areas this agricultural method it was a success.

ASSITOL has long insisted on the need to renew the systems and focus on a different perspective, which looks with confidence at research and innovation. Our sector desperately needs it.

How have olive oil exports from Italy evolved in recent years?

The uncertain scenario worries the industry a lot, especially in a context still influenced by the inflation of recent months and international tensions. For our companies, which have a strong propensity for exports, all this makes planning even more complicated. However, exports still remain one of the most lively aspects of the oil industry. Let's not forget that olive oil, abroad, is the driving force not only for oil companies, but for all the products of the Mediterranean diet, because it is considered an icon of Made in Italy which is also good for health.

In 2023, we witnessed a drop of more than 20% in exports, in non-EU countries less accustomed to consuming olive oil, linked to the increase in prices: A situation that can be explained by the higher prices and the crisis which has also affected countries where high-spending consumers, for example China, had shown a great appreciation for extra virgin olive oil. However, even here we cannot speak of a collapse and the prospects do not seem so negative. The real variable to be managed is the international economic and geo-political situation, this is the central issue to be resolved.

What are the main challenges facing olive oil production today and what will the future look like?

The industry is already working on a new way of producing, which is not only sustainable from an environmental point of view, but also from an economic and social point of view. Giving value to olive oil means remunerating the entire supply chain and relaunching the sector. We must all do it together, involving operators, from the field to the supermarket. We need a new vision of the sector, which focuses on innovation and the efficiency of all processes.

Working on production efficiency also means opening up our olive growing to new precision technologies, capable of counteracting soil consumption and water waste. A topic on which there is still a lot to do in Italy and on which we risk, once again, falling behind.
Assisted evolution technologies and new breeding techniques can also help find solutions to plant diseases such as xylella fastidiosa.

How can the Congress help to further relaunch the sector in Italy and contribute to its growth?

Olive oil is much more than a simple condiment, and it is certainly not a dietary fat like others. It is a true health juice and should be communicated and perceived that way, marking its difference compared to other fats and condiments. Scientific research has attested to its nutritional and health benefits, which make it a unique food of its kind. Also thanks to its contribution, the Mediterranean Diet is considered the healthiest and most sustainable diet in the world also thanks to the contribution of olive oil. In short, there are all the reasons to say that this food has great value. This is why we asked the institutions to launch a major promotional campaign dedicated to olive oil, thus avoiding consumer disaffection towards this food with undisputed health and nutritional qualities. We hope that the Olive Oil Congress will also support us in this battle, giving it visibility at an international level and involving other associations. ASSITOL is ready to do its part and collaborate with all the players in the sector to relaunch consumption and production.