There’s no strategic olive oil reserves to tap into here.
A slew of ongoing issues have been drizzling trouble over the olive oil industry for the better half of the past decade, according to experts in the field, and things are getting increasingly dire. Chief among the problems is a rapidly spreading olive tree-killing bacteria. That coupled with COVID-related production problems and supply issues stemming from the ongoing war in Ukraine, are wreaking havoc with supplies of the world’s favorite healthy oil.
The troubles began just over decade ago when a bacteria known as Xylella fastidiosa began killing olive trees in Italy — particularly an estimated 20 million in Puglia, per Atlas Obscura. The brutal blight turns trees an unhealthy pale color and leaves them with “no chance of survival,” according to the outlet.
The bacteria, which is carried by insects that consume tree sap called hilaenus spumarius, has since spread beyond Puglia, which is responsible for 12% of the world’s olive oil supply. Now, it’s reached the whole of Italy and other Mediterranean nations are at risk, according to Atlas Obscura.
“This is the most critical time [for olive oil]. There is an unforeseeable future,” Pietro Brembilla, owner of Italian culinary good retailer Sogno Toscano, a Tuscan business that brings the best of the boot into the US, told The Post.
Brembilla said the fatal blight has harmed production by about 50% in the past five years. He worries that not enough is being done to combat it.
“It’s been way too many years that this has been an issue … it is ruining the crops,” Brembilla said, adding that one of the largest issues from the blight is that affected products do not meet health standards to be sent around the world.
“I am pretty worried. I love my country, but we’re not the best to taking matters into our own hands. There’s only been slow changes [in fixing the blight issue].”
But, another expert, Francesco D’Onofrio, a sourcing officer with the retailer Supermarket Italy, said that government-supported initiatives like new tree planting en masse are effectively 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 told The Post, expressing optimism that things will settle down in the coming months.
But even he can acknowledge that there’s an entire other shelf of woes that are having a much more immediate effect on the fluid Italian staple.
As with many other goods, cost efficiency, production and transportation of olive oil has been hindered by the pandemic. Labor shortages, supply chain issues, rising energy costs and extreme backups at ports across the globe, particularly those in America, have led to major price increases.
The problematic ports have caused an extreme price hike in shipments by about 400% to 500%, according to both Brembilla and one of his decade-long loyal clients, Dave Greco of Mike’s Deli in The Bronx.
Greco said that container costs of imports like olive oil or even canned tomatoes have gone up from $4,000 to between $9,000 to $12,000. That’s forced him and many other local retailers to raise their prices.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to a “cherry on the cake” of these business-altering headaches, Brembilla explained.
Ukraine had been a world leader in the production of sunflower oil but has essentially halted all manufacturing since the Russian invasion.
Manufacturers have resorted to replacing sunflower oil with olive oil, driving up the cost of some olive oils by as much as 40%, according to Brembilla.
For these reasons on top of the already alarming blight, Brembilla fears the long-lasting effects it could have on Italia and one its most famous exports.
“I do worry for the future, that other nations will rely less and less on importing from Italy because of these things.”