Unprecedented drought sparks olive oil ‘panic buying’ in Catalonia

by Lorraine Williamson
olive oil

BARCELONA – An extreme drought and historically low harvest yields have led to soaring olive oil prices in Catalonia, resulting in empty shelves and sky-high costs for consumers. The situation is so dire that people have started stockpiling olive oil, an essential item in Spanish cuisine. 

According to cooperatives in southern Catalonia, the hub of the region’s olive oil production, last year’s harvest is nearly exhausted. Prices have surged alarmingly; a five-litre bottle of olive oil now costs up to €40, while a one-litre bottle has risen by 50% year-on-year to over €9. 

Catastrophic harvest projections 

“We had predicted that we would have half as many olives this year compared to last year, but the reality is far worse,” warns Jordi Pascual, responsible for the olive sector at the Catalan agricultural organisation, Unió de Pagesos (UP). “The November 2023 harvest will be just a quarter of what we would usually expect.” 

Catalonia’s annual oil production typically amounts to around 30,000 tonnes. However, last year, drought conditions halved that figure to approximately 15,000 tonnes. This year, Pascual predicts that poor blooming due to water scarcity will lead to a catastrophic 70% reduction, resulting in a mere 7,000 tonnes. 

Areas facing complete production halt 

The drought, afflicting Catalonia for more than two years, has devastating effects not just on olive oil production but on agriculture as a whole. “There are areas in Catalonia where production has entirely stopped,” Pascual notes, cautioning that the situation is likely to spread to regions like Extremadura and Valencia. 

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Controversial water management 

Critics are also pointing fingers at the region’s water management practices. UP has slammed the authorities for discharging treated water into the sea, instead of using it for irrigation. “Every day, 15,000 cubic metres of water are dumped into the sea from the Calafell treatment plant. That’s six million cubic metres per year,” laments Pascual. 

Panic buying: A trend among locals and tourists 

The scarcity has led to a new consumer trend — hoarding olive oil. “People are grabbing the five-litre bottles as if there’s no tomorrow,” observes a local shopkeeper. Reservations are even being made for next season’s yet-to-be-harvested oil. 

Perspective on pricing 

Pascual, meanwhile, puts the high pricing into perspective: “The cost of a gin and tonic is equal to that of a litre of olive oil. Those complaining about the olive oil price do so while sipping a gin and tonic. A litre of olive oil lasts a month; a gin and tonic last 20 minutes,” he says, suggesting that the public has lost a sense of what’s expensive and what’s not. 

Search for solutions 

Efforts are underway to find solutions to the crisis. UP is now collaborating with the Generalitat, the regional government of Catalonia, to explore possible solutions. While farmers are demanding direct support, similar to subsidies for other crops like grain and sweet fruits, the Spanish government has indicated that it has no plans to offer such financial aid. 

Related article: Spanish revolutionary device aims to combat drought in olive groves 

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