When people first learn of my combined Jewish and Greek heritage, the general response is along the lines of, “Holy mother of food.” With such an overflow of Mediterranean influence, though, the reality is much more, “Holy mother of olive oil.”
I always credited our mass consumption of olive oil for many positive things that run in the family: Longevity, resilient skin and an overall youthful look; after all, my mother still gets carded in the Midwest. But it wasn’t until walking past a new culinary boutique boasting organic olive oil that I began to wonder: How many chemicals have been soaking our dipped ciabatta?
One reason why many of us have remained uninformed about organic olive oil is the lack of information on it. Google the phrase “organic olive oil” and the search results primarily yield product pitches, not facts or science. Customer feedback only adds to the confusion, with many reviewers making claims about either the advantages or “false hype” around organic oils without citing sources.
More thorough research, however, sheds some light on the benefits of organic olive oil, grown almost entirely in Europe, and the disadvantages of its conventional opposite. One thing made immediately clear: Like most organic farming, the certification process for olive oil is strict, while virtually nonexistent for conventionally produced oil. Additionally, chemicals easily penetrate the rather delicate olive and, according to one organic farmer in Malta, can’t be completely removed with washing or peeling.
But the primary concern around non-organic olive oil is the damage its production and farming can cause the environment. The above-mentioned farmer also pointed out that in addition to being ineffective in removing chemicals, washing non-organic olives feeds pesticides used to treat it into sewers and, subsequently, large bodies of water. And, much like corporate farming has done to the U.S. landscape, large-scale olive oil agriculture has come close to devastating Europe’s.
In 2008, Ecologist magazine published a report on the ecological drawbacks of mass and conventionally produced olive oil. As is the case with nearly all grown edibles, demand eventually outnumbered availability, resulting in industrial-level production. In this type of farming, olive trees are planted in vast quantities, requiring colossal amounts of watering and machine-powered olive picking. To reduce time and manpower, oil is extracted from olives in large batches through heated technology. In contrast, traditional olive oil is made from nearly prehistoric trees in small orchards (requiring only hand-picking and less technology), then cold-pressed to extract oil; an old practice that helps retains the juice’s naturally occurring nutrients.
Not only has this newer, mass-production practice taken an economic toll on organic olive oil farmers, but according to the Ecologist report, it’s also responsible for “widespread soil erosion and desertification in Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal.”
Fortunately, further exposure of the issues associated with non-organic olive oil will, with hope, lead to demand for eco-friendlier varietals, bolstering both healthy eco-systems and small, organic farming. In the three years since the publication of the Ecologist report, a veritable plethora of more affordable Certified Organic olive oils has become prevalent, including Olio Beato (which also sells organic wine) and Bragg, as well as store-brand oils from Trader Joe’s and 365 Everyday Value.