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Spanish olive growers feel pain from early drought

Ralph Schulze
May 9, 2023

Spain's famous olive gardens have been hit by searing heat for the second year in a row sending prices for olive oil and other food staples soaring. Is it yet more evidence of a climate change-fueled food crisis?

An olive tree in the Tabernas Desert Almeria, the driest region of Europe, in the province of Almeria in Spain
Olive trees can survive extreme heat but are unable to bear fruits without enough waterImage: Alice Dias Didszoleit/imago images

"Lord, send us water!" The plea for divine support voiced by Bishop Sebastian Chico has so far gone unheard. The cleric in the town of Jaen made the call recently while leading a Catholic Church procession through the southern Spanish provincial capital town.

Many olive growers from the region joined him in his prayers to end the long dry spell . The sun was relentlessly burning down on the worshippers whose olive groves haven't seen a drop of rain for several months.

If the miracle the locals were praying for won't come about soon, they would be left dealing with huge crop failures for the second year in a row. And the catastrophe won't be felt by the olive growers only.

A group of worshipers holding up a crucified Jesus statue during a church procession in Perelada, Spain
After an unprecedented dry spring, prayers for water are being held all over SpainImage: Emilio Morenatti/AP/dpa

Spanish experts are fearing the pace of price hikes for olive oil will accelerate even further.

In the church service preceding Bishop Chico's procession, he warned that "without water, there are no olives," which means hardship for the entire province that depends on the fruit. Jaen province is among the world's most important olive-growing regions, producing olive oil for many parts of Europe.

Rows of olive trees at a farm in Cazorla, Jean province, Spain
There are 66 million olive trees nestled mostly on hills in the Jaen province that is home to about 630,000 peopleImage: Imago Images/Design Pics/K. Levit

The thirst of locals, tourists and trees

But meteorologists haven't had good news for farmers lately. Spain's water scarcity will endure, causing massive problems for olive farmers and other agricultural businesses. A good few days or perhaps weeks of rainfall are unlikely until next fall, Spain's state weather agency Aemet forecast just a few days ago.

And climate researchers are already warning that the southern EU country will have to live with higher temperatures and less precipitation over the long term.

A graphic reminder of Spain's unfolding drama is the situation at its freshwater reservoirs in the hinterland which are only 25% full, and it's not even the end of spring. That's not even enough to supply Spain's population and its crucial tourism industry with drinking water, let alone its farmers.

The national government has decreed that the water the olive farmers need to save their olive trees even be rationed. They only get a quarter of the normal amount.

An aerial view of the water reservoir in Vilanova de Sau, Spain
A scarcity of rainwater has reduced Spain's huge water reservoirs to little more than minor lakesImage: Emilio Morenatti/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Even heat-resistant olive trees are in danger

Olive grower Juan Luis Avila describes the situation in Jaen province as "catastrophic." Recent heat waves, with peak temperatures close to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), have literally burned the white blossoms of many olive trees.

"This year, it's not just the harvest that is in danger, but the future of the olive plantations," he told DW, expressing the fear that "much of the harvest could be lost" by the beginning of the harvesting season in November. "It has never been this bad," he says.

Avila, who is also a spokesman for the olive growers' branch at the Spanish farmers' association COAG, explains that an olive tree "can tolerate very high temperatures, but only if it gets enough water." But if there is not enough, he adds, it lacks the strength to produce healthy fruits.

Olive growers say last year's growing season was already bad, with heat waves and a shortage of rain hurting the 2022 harvest as Spain was experiencing the warmest year since weather records began. "I harvested 70% less than in previous years," Avila said, adding that he fears that he may see even smaller yields this year.

Other countries also suffer from drought

In the 2022/23 harvest season, Spain produced 680,000 tons less olive oil than in the season before. By comparison, it produced nearly 1.5 million tons in the 2021/2022 season. This year's season, ending in January 2024, holds even gloomier predictions and heavier losses in store.

But it's not only Spain that has been hit by what some already call the drought of the century, expected to inflict damage worth billions. The situation is no better for olive growers in Portugal and Italy, which means consumers in the whole of Europe are expected to feel the impact of the water crisis in the form of higher prices.

According to EU statistics, Europe's olive growers produced just under 2.3 million tons of oil in 2021/22. In 2022/23, the figure sank to around 1.4 million tons. The drop would have been worse if it wasn't for Greece, where the water shortage has so far been less noticeable, giving farmers there the opportunity to boost their output.

Water shortage drives up food prices

As olive plantations dry up, prices for the golden-green edible oil are soaring to record highs: According to an EU survey, olive oil in Europe now costs a good 50% more on average than it did twelve months ago. The oil, which is an indispensable component of the popular Mediterranean diet, is threatening to become a luxury food.

Spain's largest daily newspaper El Pais warned that the rise in olive oil prices would show how "the drought is leading to a rise in food prices in general."

A row of bottles with olive oil in a Spanish supermarket
Spanish olive oil is threatening to become a luxury food for poor people in Spain and elsewhereImage: Imago Images/Newscast

The latest available data, dating back to March 2023, show Spanish food prices climbed 16.5% over the year, and by as much as 19.2% across the EU.

The soaring food prices are leading to growing concerns that the climate crisis could soon turn into a food crisis, at least for the poorer households. That could force them to resort to a mixture of olive oil and sunflower oil in their diets, which is cheaper to produce but is less healthy.

In Spain, a market for such substandard cooking oil seems to be already there. Though identifiable only through careful reading of the fine print and with a good amount of distrust for the green olives on the label, more and more of this "oil for the less affluent" can be spotted on the shelves.  

This article was originally published in German.