Olive oil industry facing 'unforeseeable' future due to blight, production and supply issues

Stock image of olive oils
A shortage could be on the cards due to a number of problems plaguing the industry. Photo credit: Getty Images

The future of one the world's favourite condiments is looking a little slippery, with reports suggesting there could be a shortage of the versatile and much-loved olive oil in the not-too-distant future.

According to a report by the New York Post, the industry has been plagued by a number of problems in recent times, including production and supply issues stemming from the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine. 

Additionally, the rapidly spreading bacteria Xylella fastidiosa - a plant pathogen transmitted by fluid-feeding sap insects - is wreaking havoc on olive trees in the Mediterranean. The blight began affecting the slow-growing trees more than a decade ago in Italy, killing an estimated 20 million in the southern region of Puglia - which is responsible for 12 percent of the world's olive oil supply.

According to the online travel magazine Atlas Obscura, the bacteria has since spread beyond the region and is now affecting olive trees throughout Italy and other Mediterranean nations. 

Speaking to the New York Post, Pietro Brembilla, the owner of Italian culinary goods retailer Sogno Toscano, said the combination of factors means it is now "the most critical time" for olive oil.

"It's been way too many years that this has been an issue… it is ruining the crops," Brembilla said.

"I am pretty worried. I love my country, but we're not the best at taking matters into our own hands. There's only been slow changes [in fixing the blight issue]."

But Francesco D'Onofrio, a sourcing officer with the US retailer Supermarket Italy, told the New York Post that government-supported initiatives, like the planting of new trees en masse, are combatting the blight.

"I've spoken with many major producers in Italy today and they do not see any issues with the product for the 2023 harvest," D'Onofrio said.

However, he acknowledged the industry is slick with other issues. As with numerous other goods, the production and transportation of olive oil has been severely impacted by the pandemic. Labour shortages, supply chain issues, rising energy costs and extreme backlogs at ports across the globe, particularly in the US, have led to significant increases in price. 

As reported by the outlet, there has been a 400 to 500 percent price hike in shipments. Speaking to the outlet, Dave Greco - the owner of a New York-based deli - said that container costs of imports such as olive oil have risen from US$4000 to anywhere from US$9000 to US$12,000 - leaving him and other local retailers with no choice but to raise their prices.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in late February has only put further strain on the industry. Once a world leader in the production of sunflower oil, Ukraine has been forced to halt its production due to the ongoing crisis. As a result, manufacturers have resorted to replacing sunflower oil with olive oil, driving up the cost of some olive oils substantially, per the New York Post

"I do worry for the future, that other nations will rely less and less on importing from Italy because of these things," Brembilla told the outlet. 

"There is an unforeseeable future."