Olive Facts...


The origin of the olive tree is lost in time, coinciding and mingling with the expansion of the Mediterranean civilizations which for centuries governed the destiny of mankind and left their imprint on Western culture.

Olive leaf fossils hove been found in Pliocene deposits at Mongardino in Italy. Fossilised remains have been discovered in strata from the Upper Paleolithic at the Relilai snail hatchery in North Africa, and pieces of wild olive trees and stones have been uncovered in excavations of the Chalcolithic period and the Bronze Age in Spain. The existence of the olive tree therefore dates back to the twelfth millennium BC.

The wild olive tree originated in Asia Minor where it is extremely abundant and grows in thick forests. It appears to have spread from Syria to Greece via Anatolia (De Candolle, 1883) although other hypotheses point to lower Egypt, Nubia, Ethiopia, the Atlas Mountains or certain areas of Europe as its source area. Caruso for that reason believes it to be indigenous to the entire Mediterranean Basin and considers Asia Minor to have been the birthplace of the cultivated olive some six millennia ago. The Assyrians and Babylonians were the only
ancient civilisations in the area who were not familiar with the olive tree.

Taking the area that extends from the southern Caucasus to the Iranion plateau and the Mediterranean coasts of Syria and Palestine (Acerbo) to be the original home of the olive tree, its cultivation developed considerably in these last two regions, spreading from there to the island of Cyprus and on towards Anatolia or from the island of Crete towards Egypt.

In the 16th century BC the Phoenicians started disseminating the olive throughout the Greek  isles, later introducing it to the Greek mainland between the 14th and 12th centuries BC where its cultivation increased and gained great importance in the 4th century BC when Solon issued decrees regulating olive planting.

From the 6th century BC onwards, the olive spread throughout the Mediterranean countries reaching Tripoli, Tunis and the island of Sicily. From there, it moved to southern Italy. Presto, however, maintained that the olive tree in Italy dates back to three centuries before the fall of Troy (1200 BC). Another Roman annalist (Penestrello) defends the traditional view that the first olive tree was brought to Italy during the reign of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus the Elder (616 - 578 BC), possibly from Tripoli or Gabes (Tunisia).Cultivation moved upwards from south to north, from Calabria to Liguria. When the Romans arrived in North Africa, the Berbers knew how to graft wild olives and had really developed its cultivation throughout the territories they occupied.

The Romans continued the expansion of the olive tree to the countries bordering the editerranean, using it as a peaceful weapon in their conquests to settle the people. It was introduced in Marseilles around 600 BC and spread from there to the whole of Gaul. The olive tree made its appearance in Sardinia in Roman times, while in Corsica it is said to have been brought by the Genoese after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Olive growing was introduced into Spain during the maritime domination of the Phoenicians (1050 BC) but did not develop to a noteworthy extent until the arrival of Scipio (212 BC) and Roman rule (45 BC). After the third Punic War, olives occupied a large stretch of the Baetica
valley and spread towards the central and Mediterranean coastal areas of the Iberian Peninsula, The Arabs brought their varieties with them to the south of Spain and influenced the spread of cultivation so much that the Spanish words for olive (aceituna), oil (aceite) and wild olive tree
(acebuche) have Arabic roots.

With the discovery of America (1492) olive farming spread beyond its Mediterranean confines. The first olive trees were carried from Seville to the West Indies and later to the American Continent. By 1560 olive groves were being cultivated in Mexico, then later in Peru, California, Chile and Argentina, where one of the plants brought over during the Conquest - the old Arauco olive tree - lives to this day.

In more modern times the olive tree has continued to spread outside the Mediterranean and today is farmed in places as far removed from its origins as southern Africa, Australia, Japan and China. As Duhamel said, the Mediterranean ends where the olive tree no longer grows", which can be capped by saying that "There where the sun permits, the olive tree takes root and gains ground".

World Production of Raw Olives

According to the IOOC there are 789 million trees worldwide, 95 per cent of them in the Mediterranean region.  European estimates in 1995 indicate that there were 460 million productive trees in the European Union and around 2 million farms engaged mainly in olive growing.

World production of raw olives in 1996 reached a record level of more than 14 million tonnes.  This record harvest was mainly the result of favourable weather in olive producing countries, particularly Spain.  In 1997 production fell by 12.3 per cent; however it was still well above the 1980-97 average.

Spain and Italy are by far the major olive producing countries, with 28.8 per cent and 22.8 per cent respectively of total world production in 1997.  Greece (11.2%), Turkey (12.6%) and Tunisia (8.7%) are also major producers.  In terms of area harvested, Spain held first place in 1995 with 28 per cent of the total. Spain had more than 167 million trees planted in 1990.

World Table Olive Market

The market for table olives during the 1996-97 crop year exhibited a slight increase in both production and consumption.  Production reached 1 082 500 tonnes, 12.4 per cent above the average for the period 1990-91 to 1997-98.  World consumption has risen 2.3 per cent above the 1990s average, to a record level of 1 005 000 tonnes in 1996-97.   As with olive oil, production of table olives in that year exceeded consumption.  However, according to the IOOC this is not likely to continue as the increase in consumption of the past 6 years is expected to continue (IOOC 2001).

Figure 1a: Consumption of Green Olives, 1996-97 (Source: IOOC, 2001)

World production in 1997-98 is expected to fall by 5.9 per cent, but even so should still be well above the recent average.  Consumption, on the other hand, is expected to increase by 2.3 per cent. In the 1996-97 crop year world production of table olives was dominated by Spain (23.7%).  Other significant producers were Turkey (18%), the United States (13.3%) and Morocco (9.7%).  The major consuming countries were the United States and Turkey each 15%, Italy (11%) and Spain (10%) (see Figures 1a & 1b).


Traditionally, green olives are the main type of table olive produced worldwide, followed by black olives and olives turning colour.  Although world production of table olives was expected to fall during the 1997-98 crop year, production of green olives was forecast to increase by 2.5 per cent.

Figure 1b : Consumption of Black Olives, 1996-97 (Source: IOOC, 2001).

World Olive Oil Market

Olive oil accounts for only a minor share of world production and consumption of total oils. In 1996-97, world production of edible oils and soap fats was forecast to reach 96 million tonnes, with olive oil accounting for only 2.2 per cent. World consumption of oils and fats reached approximately 97 million tonnes, with olive oil accounting for 2.4 per cent.

According to IOOC figures, world production of olive oil in 1996-97 reached a record level of 2 602 000 tonnes, up 45 per cent from the previous year. Increases in olive production were caused mainly by favourable weather and by structural changes taking place in the production and processing sectors of the EU and other producing countries such as Turkey and Tunisia.  For the IOOC, the apparent oversupply of olive oil in 1996-97 may reflect the possibility of a ´┐Żnew phase where production might outstrip consumption fairly systematically´┐Ż.

For geographic, historical and cultural reasons, consumption and production of olive oil have traditionally been high in a number of countries now members of the EU, particularly countries in the Mediterranean region. In 1996 the EU accounted for more than 70 per cent of world production, with Spain (37%), Greece (15%) and Italy (15%) the major producers.  The region also accounted for almost 70 per cent of world consumption, with Italy (29%), Spain (22%) and Greece (8%) being the major consuming countries. Although consumption in most olive producing-countries has increased very slowly over the last decade, and in some cases even decreased, consumption in new markets such as the United States, Canada, Australia and particularly Japan has risen much faster (see Table 1.1).

Examination of per capita consumption figures during the past five years (see Table 1.2) indicates that consumption in some Mediterranean countries, particularly in Greece and Italy, has fallen, while consumption in new markets has shown a clear rising trend.  Australia is the country outside the Mediterranean region with the greatest per capita consumption of olive oil.


Sources:   International Olive Oil Council p://www.internationaloliveoil.org)
                Part of this material is taken from the book "The Olive Tree, The Oil, The Olive",
                published by International Olive Oil Council