Amid rocketing prices, shortages and fakes

Impact of olive oil shortage on Israel could have been averted, industry chief says

Head of olive division at Israel Plant Council accuses government of abandoning farmers, who could make Israel a global olive oil power

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Groves of olive trees in the lower Galilee, northern Israel, February 7, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Groves of olive trees in the lower Galilee, northern Israel, February 7, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Climate change-related drought, heat, and wildfires across much of Mediterranean Europe, combined with war-related harvesting problems in northern and southern Israel, are behind rocketing prices and shortages of olive oil in Israeli stores, with an influx of fake products filling the vacuum.

Globally, olive oil prices have more than doubled since 2022 as harvests have declined. Prices in Israel have followed suit.

But Adi Naali, in charge of the Olive Division at the Israel Plant Council, said that when looking at the future of olive oil supply in Israel, these reasons are secondary. He told The Times of Israel that inconsistent government policy over the years, with encouragement followed by abandonment, had pushed farmers to uproot some 400,000 trees over recent years.

In September, the Finance Ministry scrapped all tariffs on imported olive oil as part of a broader attempt to lower the cost of living.

But, said Naali, a promise to help Israeli growers with an annual (and according to him, insufficient) NIS 30 million ($8.2 million) has not yet materialized.

Lowest global yield in seven years

According to Olive Oil Times, the world’s seven biggest oil-producing countries are expected to provide just under two million tons of olive oil during the current year (the harvest starts in October). This is seven percent less than last year, and 23% less than the average for the previous four crop years, meaning the lowest yield since the 2016-2017 olive-producing season.

Adi Naali, head of the Olive Division at the Plant Council. (Olive Division, Plant Council)

Naali said that in contrast to the major European growers in countries such as Spain, Portugal and Italy, who produced 70% of the world’s olive oil supply but relied mainly on rainwater, Israelis had developed irrigation systems able to use everything from brackish groundwater in the desert, to recycled sewage water and desalinated water to ensure water security.

Israel produced around half of the 30,000 tons of olive oil that Israelis consume annually, Naali went on.

Due to the current war, however, more than 40% of local olives never made it to the olive presses. Many groves in parts of northern Israel and along the Gaza border had become inaccessible, and volunteers had not made up for manpower shortages, Naali said.

Members of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai — a major producer of olive oil, marketed by the food giant Strauss, for example, was evacuated after Hamas terrorists invaded the Gaza border area on October 7, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping 253.

Together with the Zeta brand, marketed by the Wissotzky Group, it has been almost absent from the shelves.

In recent weeks, the Health Ministry has issued several recall notices for sub-standard oil olive products that have been sold.

“Today, there’s a flood of oil, mainly from Turkey, and it’s found time and again to be fake,” Naali said.

“The Israeli sector has been neglected and we’re at a crossroads,” he continued. “If we’d operated properly, there would have been no need for shortages or this plague of fake oil.”

An olive grove that was uprooted at Kibbutz Revivim in southern Israel because it was no longer profitable. (Olive Oil Division, Plants Council)

“We’re missing a major opportunity for Israel to be an olive oil powerhouse.”

Israel could be an olive oil powerhouse

Converting a further 50,000 dunams (just under 12,400 acres) of farmland not being used optimally over the next five years and continuing to improve the technology would enable Israel to be self-sufficient in quality olive oil, Naali said, and eventually to export to places such as the Gulf.

“We have the solution in precision agriculture (which includes mechanized harvesting to reduce the need for manpower) that ensures the best oil and a high yield, but we need investment — and there’s a great return on investment — particularly at the establishment stage.”

The European Union, he said, supported 85% to 90% of the costs of establishing an olive farm. It also subsidized production to the tune of 1.8 euros ($2) per kilo of oil. (It takes five kilograms, or 11 pounds, of olives to make one kilogram of oil.)

The Ein Kamunim olive press, in the Galilee, northern Israel, on November 8, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Here, we get nada, nothing. We warned the day would come when we’d have shortages.”

Olive oil is healthy and local production means food security, Naali said.

Olives are one of the most sustainably farmed crops, he went on. The trees are native, suited to the climate and soil, and require less manpower — and water — than, say, citrus.

They help to preserve the landscape, absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, allow rainwater to percolate into the groundwater, and provide for the passage of wild animals, he said.

Mechanized oil harvesting in the Golan Heights, northern Israel, November 2016. (Maor Kinsbursky/Flash90)

“Our industry can grow, or it can shut down.”

Noting that the world’s evidence of human consumption of olive oil was found in Israel, at the remains of a 7,700-year-old sunken village off the northern Mediterranean coast, Naali stressed the important role that olives and olive trees had played in the history, culture and landscape of Israel for thousands of years.

An Agriculture Ministry statement said that farmers could expect the grants for last year and this year “in the coming months,” with this year’s sum totaling NIS 39.6 million ($10.8 million).

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