- Posted October 12, 2013 by
THE MOROCCAN OLIVE OIL
Thoughts of olives on a pizza or olives in a salad make one think about Greece, Italy and even Spain. However, Morocco is second only to Greece in exports of olives to the world market and are one of Morocco's primary exports. The increase in olive production in Morocco has in many cases served farmers well, yet it seems to simultaneously have environmental impacts. The degradation of the land in Morocco, caused in part by increased agricultural production, is an important issue to be cognizant of when entering a discussion of Moroccan agriculture and her olive subsector.
1. The Issue
Morocco is a traditional producer of olives. Morocco has seen a steady increase in olive exports and the country maintains an active program to increase olive production by promoting olive tree planting. While this increase has seen Morocco become one of the world's largest olive exporters, Morocco recently moved ahead of Greece as the world's second largest exporter of olives, (1) it has also drawn the ire of some regarding the environmental implications of such growth. Growth in olive production have brought about ecological concerns stemming from Morocco's potential for desertification and increased pollution linked to olive processing plants. Around Marrakech, production plants involved with canning and olive oil production have caused serious atmospheric pollution. These problems will only increase as Morocco's olive sector grows and the government continues to support its augmentation. Some of the specific ecological change in Morocco involves the degradation of the soil and desertification. Essentially, these aspects cause the land to lose its production strength and in some cases, have led to destruction of the biological productivity of the land. These environmental changes are exacerbated by drought, yet it is imperative to understand that they are primarily human-induced phenomenon.(2) Therefore, increased awareness of the environmental aspects of increased olive production is crucial for Morocco and her agricultural production of the future.
The olive branch for centuries has been a symbol of peace. The olive is a small, naturally bitter, oily fruit that contains a pit. It also requires a distinct curing process before it is edible. The olive curing process is one of the most fascinating aspects of the olive. Every country has its own way to cure olives. In Morocco, there are hundreds of ways to cure olives. The ripening process of an olive is also quite remarkable. The fruit passes through a spectrum of colors from pale green, to tan, to violet, to brownish-red and finally to black. Yet, before the ripening and curing stage comes the development of the olive. In May, flowers emerge from the olive tree and these give birth to tiny beads. These beads fatten and harden until September. In September and October, the olive is usually fully formed and can be picked and cured. However, olives usually do not completely ripen until winter. While this is a cursory introduction to the olive, it does not begin to portray the regal nature of the olive and how its existence and presence has defined the essence of many civilizations.
The olive's emergence in the world is difficult to pinpoint exactly. However, fossilized leaves that date back 37,000 years were found on the Greek island of Santorini. The olive was supposedly domesticated prior to the existence of written history, dating back to a time when man was unable to devise words to record the momentous occasion and before the Bible was even a notion. Yet, the olive did also secure its place in Biblical myth, for it was upon the Mount of Olives that Jesus was crucified on a cross made of olive wood. At the same time, Egyptians argue that the olive can be traced to the Nile Delta. The olive's birth and creation is somewhat of a mystery and has led to the development of many varying histories. Yet, whichever story one chooses to believe, the olive's presence has been felt for centuries.
The olive's history in Morocco can be traced to Greek colonizers on Sicily. The colonizers brought the olive to the island and took trees across on to the mainland. Eventually, as trade routes developed, the olive was brought west. The Romans were responsible for planting huge groves in North Africa and by the tenth century, olive trees covered the islands of the Mediterranean and ringed its shores in southern Europe and northern Africa. Thus it is not surprising that the olive is one of Morocco's most fabled, and recently has reemerged as one of its most important, crops.
Background on Morocco
Morocco is a country situated in the Northwestern corner of Africa. It sits merely miles from Spain and Europe and is one of the most distinguished countries of North Africa due to its extensive arable coastal lowlands, its full exposure to the Atlantic and Mediteranean and its magnificent mountains. The country's differing geographic areas have all been of extreme significance for its agricultural development as a state. Morocco had a colonial period that lasted only 44 years, the shortest such period in North Africa. Morocco gained its independence from France and Spain in 1956.
Agriculture is an essential aspect of Morocco's economy. The temperate maritime climate and rainfall have favored the development of agriculture, particularly in the northwestern part of Morocco. During its colonial period, the cultivation of cereals was forcibly implemented by the French. The idea was to create in Morocco a "breadbasket" for France. However, these policies began to falter with the agricultural crises of the early 1930's. Nonetheless, the impact of colonial agricultural policy remains today. Thus, the agricultural basis of Moroccan economy is both important and easily explicable. Today, 40% of the work force is engaged in agriculture and in 1991, foodstuffs accounted for over 27% of Moroccan exports. Cultivated land accounts for 20% of the land in Morocco.(3) Moreover, agriculture generates between 15-20% of GDP.4 The agriculture sector in Morocco is not losing ground. In fact, the government's determination to promote agricultural self-sufficiency, coupled with the very important role of agriculture with regards to employment, underscores the attention which the sector receives.
Morocco has been producing olives for over 2,000 years. Over 395,000 hectares of cultivated land are devoted today to olive production and they produce 350,000-400,000 tons of olives each year. The country is a traditional producer of olives and nowhere is it more evident than in the country's cuisine, where olives are a staple. In the last few years, the country's olive production has begun to increase dramatically and now the olive tree represents the most important part of Moroccan tree crops. The development of the crop over the last 20 years is rather phenomenal. Olive production accounted for approximately 230,000 hectares in 1970. The increase in olive production can be traced directly to government policy. Since 1986, a major planting program has been pursued by the Moroccan Government. On average, 15,000-20,000 hectares have been planted each year since 1986.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Agricultural Development has two programs of importance for the olive subsector in Morocco. The first is a program that intends to increase production by distributing free plants for 15,000 hectares per year. Secondly, the ministry works with the World Bank-funded olive research project in Marrakech with the Institute for National Agricultural Research. These programs allow the ministry to address some of the constraints facing the private sector: total production and varieties available.(6) This also creates potential for closer collaboration between the INRA research and private companies. An important aspect of this collaboration is the private processors who are in better touch with the markets and can recommend concrete analysis for the selection of olive varieties. These programs underscore the importance devoted to the olive subsector of Moroccan agriculture.
The Moroccan olive subsector is not as specialized as those in rival countries such as Spain, Greece and Italy. In part this is because the olive industries in these countries have been evolving for many years. Moreover, their strong place within their respective economies is the result of a concerted and devoted effort to the process by farmers and the governments. Morocco has only recently made a serious effort to enhance its olive industry. In fact, Morocco's recent focus on olive production has been driven largely by world market demands. The Moroccan baldi picholine is the dominant variety in the national orchard. This style of olive is used for both canning and pressing into olive oil. Estimates state that this style represents 98% of Moroccan olive trees. The Moroccan olive subsector is spread mainly over three production areas: The South and East, the Center, and the North. The South and East is a subarid climate that stretches from the east to the pre-Saharan provinces. This region makes up nearly half of the national orchard and features olives that are grown under intense cultivation. The Center is situated between the North and the Atlas mountains. The North accounts for 1/3 of the national orchard and is well-known for its use of forest plantations and olives grown in orchard conditions.
Moroccan Olives on the World Market
The Government of Morocco sees the importance of its olive crop in the world market and the country is looking to take advantage of its comparative advantage over Spain and the USA in terms of costs of production. It has been suggested that if Morocco can increase its production of olives, it can in turn develop the increased supply of olive oil necessary to enter, and become a regular exporter on, the world market.
The world market is important when discussing increased growth and production in the olive subsector in Morocco. Over the past few years, global consumption of table olives has been increasing quite steadily. In 1983-84 consumption was approximately 700,00 tons and figures in 1991-92 show consumption estimated at 927,000 tons.(8) The Mediterranean basin countries have the highest per capita consumption, yet the USA is the world's leading consumer of olives with approximately 160,000 tons per year. For Morocco, however, its principal market is France, but the health conscious US market has seen a dramatic increase in demand for olive oil due to its availability as a healthy alternative. In this regard, they are quite correct.
Doctors are becoming more and more convinced about the nutritional value of olive oil. It is monounsaturated and unlike animal fat, it does not linger in the body as a cancer risk. It has also been documented that olive oil helps digestion and retards aging in bones, joints and skin. Others cite evidence that olive oil prevents certain cancers. While the specific benefits of olive oil are rather subjective, it has been determined that olives are good for health.
Essentially, all of these factors indicate that Moroccan olive growth production is on its way up . The efforts by the government to increase production in the olive subsector, and the ever-increasing world market, combine to make the olive subsector a very important one in the already agriculturally driven country. Thus, increases will only continue and get larger. While this is seen as a very positive aspect for the country especially those involved with the olive subsector, the ongoing and impending growth in the industry also has some serious environmental implications.
Environmental Impact of Olive Growth
North Africa and Morocco have seen the presence of human populations for hundreds of years. The human presence in North Africa has had a definite impact on the natural environment. However, until the last century, North Africa remained as one of the more pristine and least degraded parts of the Mediterranean basin.(9) When the Europeans colonized the region, they brought intense pressure on the environment and the massive influx of settlers only furthered the beginning of the harm being done to the environment. By the 1960's, most of the region's arable land was put into production and about that time, some of the cultivated areas began to experience varying degrees of environmental degradation. More detail on Morocco's environmental problems follows.
Morocco is not yet at the point of experiencing an environmental disaster. However, all of the above environmental concerns, drought, soil degradation and erosion, and most importantly, desertification, have been noticed in the country. It has also been shown in this work that olive production is a burgeoning agricultural subsector in Morocco and it has received significant promotion by the Moroccan Government. Moreover, the world market will keep the olive subsector on a growth path. Therefore, the land use pattern in Morocco will continue and the pattern of land use intensification will only grow, thereby causin greater alterations to the environment. In sum, the current situation in Morocco has not resulted in an environmental disaster, nor can that be concretely established as a future occurrence. At the same time, a very strong case has been made for the current environmental problems that exist in Morocco and the very real possibility of their exacerbation to the point of destructive land degradation in the form of soil erosion and desertification if current agriculture, in this particular olive production, is conducted without any environmental consciousness.