JUBA: Tunisia, one of the world’s top five olive oil producers, is standing at a critical turning point. The country’s olive oil industry, which has long been a vital source of economic stability and foreign currency, is facing challenges that could determine its future.
With the rise of super intensive farming using Spanish olive varieties and methods, Tunisia has witnessed a surge in production levels and profits for big investors. However, this newfound success faces new obstacles.
As the industry shifts towards mechanization and unsustainable practices, the long-term sustainability of Tunisia’s olive oil sector, as well as the well-being of local communities and the unique climate and ecology of the country, hangs in the balance.
Olive farming is deeply ingrained in Tunisia’s agricultural landscape, with over 300,000 producers and approximately 1.7 million hectares of olive trees. This vast cultivation area covers 35 percent of Tunisia’s cultivable land, making it the most prominent agricultural occupation in terms of land use.
Olive farming also serves as a significant source of employment, as during harvest seasons, women and young people often find temporary work in the sector. Yet, much of the harvests are exported by European companies without recognizing the place of origin.
The mislabelling occurs because Tunisian olive oils are often undervalued, and consumers tend to prefer well-established European brands.
“This mislabeling problem is significant, also because consumers often end up paying for extra virgin olive oil but receive lower-quality oils instead,” Anita Zachou, an olive oil expert, told Arab News.
For her, Tunisian olive oil varieties such as Chetoui, Sayali and Chemlali have significant potential to appeal to customers and win their taste preferences.
However, in recent years, in Tunisia, Spanish varieties have been increasingly planted “as they may provide quick growth,” Habib Ben Moussa, an environmental expert from Tunis, told Arab News, pointing to their limited lifespan of approximately 30 years.
“Chemlali, a highly productive local variety, has the potential to compete with Greek and Spanish varieties which put strain on local water sources,” Ben Moussa added. “Considering the increasing frequency of dry years due to climate change, it is unlikely that Spanish varieties have a future.”
Judy Ridgway, another renowned expert on olive oils, noted that recently “Tunisian olive oils have started making their way into the UK market under their own names, separate from international blends, yet more needs to be done to increase awareness and recognition of Tunisian olive oils.”
Despite the challenges in marketing new brands on international markets, Tunisian companies have made significant strides by
improving the quality of their products in recent years, actively participating in international competitions and receiving awards.
EVOO Zeet, an award-winning business, played a pivotal role in introducing Tunisian extra virgin olive oil to the UK market in 2017.
“Procuring high-quality Tunisian olive oil can be challenging due to policies and the requirement of large quantities from buyers,” Daly Hamdi, the owner, told Arab News.
Also, climate change and water stress have further complicated olive oil production in Tunisia and other Mediterranean countries, Hamdi added. “Drought and a lack of workforce continue to pose significant challenges to the industry, driving up the cost of olive oil. While the Tunisian government supports larger producers, smaller producers face difficulties in accessing the necessary support.”
Despite the olive oil industry’s challenges in Tunisia, it is not an isolated predicament as the whole of Southern Europe, including the world’s largest olive producer, Spain, is facing its own crisis due to a heatwave. This threatens to yield a second consecutive poor harvest, leading to potential gaps on shelves and even higher prices.
“As a result, the customers can turn away from olive oils, and choose more affordable ones,” Yacine Amor, the managing director of the Artisan Olive Oil Company, another highly-acclaimed company focused on Tunisian olive oils, told Arab News.
Amor emphasises the importance of preserving Tunisian olive oil’s uniqueness. To mitigate challenges, the company sources from irrigated olive groves and maintains a diverse supplier network.
“There are challenges like everywhere, but we remain focused on building a strong brand.”