Olive oil is the first thing that goes in the pan when you’re cooking vegetables. It’s the base for salad dressings and marinades, the perfect dipping sauce for bread. Once you find a good one, you may not want to let it go: having a tried-and-true bottle on hand feels like reassurance that every new recipe you try will turn out well. But you may have had trouble finding your favorite in the past few months—and it’s likely that more changes are coming to the olive oil shelves of your local grocery store.
Like any agricultural product, olives are vulnerable to the fickle nature of, well, nature. While some years go by without a hitch, others throw weather challenges at olive farmers—such as unexpected freezes or droughts—that can have devastating effects on the quantity or quality of their crop. As climate change continues to wreak havoc on global weather patterns, predicting and responding to these challenges may become even more difficult for farmers.
In California, which produces more olive oil than any other state in the U.S., 2018 was one of these difficult years. February wrought temperatures as high as 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which invited olive buds to bloom early. Then the cold weather came back—freezing the tender blossoms, which prevented them from forming into flowers and, ultimately, fruit.
“Almost all farmers in California were impacted,” says Jim Lipman, VP of production operations at California Olive Ranch, America’s largest olive oil producer. The hot-and-cold 2018 season, Lipman continues, “drastically reduced the size of the crop and impacted fruit quality.”
As the name implies, when California Olive Ranch was founded in 1998, the company built its brand around sourcing olives exclusively from Golden State growers. When, in the fall of 2018, it became clear that working only with local farmers would not be possible that year (unless they substantially reduced the amount of oil they produced), California Olive Ranch needed to consider other options.
The company was in a good position to respond to the crisis. Several years back, in anticipation of changing weather patterns, California Olive Ranch began cultivating relationships with farmers across the world. When the 2018 olive harvest came up short, they began sourcing oils from olives grown in Argentina, Chile, Portugal to blend with their California product. In November 2018, they released these blends with a new label, calling it the “Destination Series.”
The move did not go over well with many home cooks who expected the olives in California Olive Ranch oil to be from … California. This room for misinterpretation of the product seems suspiciously like the kind of thing that California Olive Ranch and other domestic producers campaigned against only a few years ago, when they demanded greater transparency and better labeling of European olive oils. “Yes, customers of California Olive Ranch should most definitely feel duped,” says Tom Mueller, author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.
“We have and always will conduct our business with a high level of transparency,” responds Michael Fox, California Olive Ranch CEO, noting that all of their oils, including the oil sourced from other countries, undergo rigorous testing and are certified as extra virgin through the Olive Oil Commission of California. The new Destination Series bottles don’t hide their provenance: the growers’ countries are displayed on the front of the label along with a new “Grown Globally, Crafted in California” slogan.
California olive oil producers didn’t all have this sort of backup plan to keep things afloat. Statewide, olive oil production decreased by about 57 percent from the previous year. And California olive growers weren’t the only ones who struggled in 2018. France, Australia, Italy and Greece all also experienced harvest difficulties thanks to excessive rain, drought, heat waves, and damage from the olive fly (a pest whose larvae feed on olive fruit). All of these challenging factors, including the olive fly, are expected to increase with climate change. One study that focused on climate change in the Mediterranean Basin, where 90 percent of the world’s olive oil is produced, concluded that the region is expected to be exposed to more unfavorable growing conditions in coming years, which will negatively impact both olive oil production quantities and quality of the oil itself. For example, olives grown in particularly warm weather can have lower levels of oleic acid, an oxidation-resistant monounsaturated fatty acid that sets olive oil apart from other vegetable oils, and is required at certain levels for the oil to be certified extra virgin.
Italian olive farmers had the 2018 harvest season particularly rough. A combination of increased olive flies, early spring frosts, summer drought, and erratic autumn rain led to a 59.2 percent decrease in olive oil production from the previous year—making the fall of 2018 the worst harvest season the country had seen in 25 years. In February, olive growers took to the streets in protest, calling for the government to recognize the bad harvests as an emergency that warranted aid to the agricultural sector. By March 2019, the shortage caused a 30 percent price hike on olives grown in Italy, raising fears that olive oil producers would opt to dilute Italian olive oils with cheaper products from other countries.
About a year after the start of this global olive crisis, the 2019 harvest season is now upon us. Luckily, farmers in many countries are seeing a much more optimistic forecast for the year ahead. According to the European Union’s latest short-term agriculture report, released earlier this month, Italy’s olive oil production is projected to recover, and olive oil exports for the European Union on the whole are expected to be above average.
This year’s outlook is looking better for California olive oil producers, too—including for California Olive Ranch. “We are anticipating a return to normal production levels in 2019,” Lipman says. “We anticipate that California as an industry will produce roughly 4 million gallons of extra virgin olive oil, a significant increase from 2018.”
While this means that California Olive Ranch will once again showcase their Reserve Collection, made entirely from California olives, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to see their Destination Series disappear from the shelves. “The reality is, the crop failure of 2018 couldn’t have been prevented and future freezes can’t be avoided,” Lipman says. Continuing to source olive oils from around the world is a strategy that could help sustain the company’s resilience in the face of future climate change.
“Having flexibility to go where the harvest is good that year is a strategic advantage,” says Nicholas Coleman, co-founder and oleologist at Grove and Vine, a company that offers boxed subscriptions to regional olive oils from around the world. “If you are only getting oil from one place year after year, you are more prone to these climatic shifts.”
What does all this mean for us at the grocery store? There will still be premium single-site oils to drizzle on bread (or our summer tomatoes), though their numbers—and prices—may vary from one year to the next. And when we're looking for that workhorse oil, that affordable pantry staple for sloshing into every skillet, we may just have to be flexible about where it came from.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious