Olive oil is an essential element of the Mediterranean diet, but these days it is also hugely popular in countries where it is not a traditional ingredient, because of its flavor and health benefits. But large-scale, industrial olive oil production brings many negative environmental impacts. Intensive olive farming is causing widespread soil erosion and desertification in Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal, and water resources are being depleted to irrigate huge olive plantations. Intensive farms use techniques like frequent tillage and heavy pesticide use that reduce biodiversity, and non-organic oils can be refined with chemical solvents and contaminated with pesticide residues.
One cooperative in southern Spain is trying to encourage traditional, small-scale, organic olive cultivation, providing local organic olive growers with a mill where they can bring their olives to be pressed into oil. La Flor de la Alpujarra was founded in 2006, and at the time the nearest mill was over 100 kilometres away. Kate Fairtlough, the cooperatives vice-president and also a farmer-member, explains: We wanted to encourage other local olive farmers to convert to organic farming, by providing them with the opportunity to get better prices for their crops and therefore try to stop the gradual decline of traditional farming in the area, the abandoning and uprooting of hundred-year-old olive groves, ancient irrigation systems falling into disrepair, and the subsequent desertification of the landscape.
The cooperatives olive groves are cultivated without the use of insecticides, pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and serve as havens for biodiversity. In the Alpujarra region, located between Granada and Almeria, small-scale subsistence farming relys on the traditional irrigation system of acequias, community-operated waterways, inherited from Arab culture.
Unusually for an agricultural cooperative, La Flor de la Alpujarra has approximately 50 percent female members, and the management committee is also equally split between men and women. The cooperative wants to encourage the areas social and economic development by offering a fair price for the growers olives, and so it focuses on direct sales to local markets and consumer groups, cutting out as many middlemen as possible, in order to achieve fairer prices for both producers and consumers.
Though the cooperative sold 100,000 of olive oil last year, it is still struggling with high overheads and the loans required to set up the mill. When the loans have been paid off, however, the plans are to expand into other local products that will provide extra income and diversity for local farmers, like almonds, figs and pomegranates.