Representing a source of food, medicine, lamp oil, furniture wood, sacrificial oil, anointing oil, olive trees and olive oil have had a sacred meaning in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism for many centuries. Going back to the story of Noah’s flood, the evergreen tree and its branches are referenced more than 100 times in the Bible, where it embodies peace and reconciliation. A blooming olive tree also represents beauty and abundance in the Bible.
Olive oil was used in the coronation of kings, while the Qur’an also reveres olives even as the olive tree adorns Muslim prayer rugs. It has a direct reference from God (“Allah” in Arabic): “By the fig and the olive, and by Mount Sinai, and by this secure city, surely, We have made man in the finest order.”
Prophet Mohammed considered olive oil sacred. He told his followers to use the oil from the blessed tree to anoint themselves. Even today, Muslims continue to follow this instruction. Indeed, Christians, Muslims, and Jews historically have considered olive trees as symbols of peace, life, love, and celebration.
The importance of olive tree extends beyond its religious and spiritual significance. It has been a vital source for the economies of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) for hundreds of years.
Still, the importance of olive tree extends beyond its religious and spiritual significance. It has been a vital source for the economies of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) for hundreds of years. Olive tree cultivation goes back to nearly 6,000 years in MENA, where it has been an economic lifeline for thousands of farmers, who would have struggled to make ends meet without producing olive oil. Olives and olive oil are essential food sources for the region as well. The Arab people take pride in the ancient methods of producing olive oil. For many of them, olive trees and the land in which they grow connect many generations, making it part of their identity.
Olive trees live for a long time because they are resilient and are generally drought-resistant. They can survive severe weather impacts compared to other types of trees. They have withstood wars and elements for thousands of years in MENA. The roots of olive trees can be strong enough to regenerate themselves even if the above-ground tree is destroyed. Regardless of their age, they can produce abundant harvest for many years.
Despite their resilience, olive trees now face an existential threat from the changing global climate.
Yet despite their resilience, olive trees now face an existential threat from the changing global climate. The warming of the Mediterranean Sea and the heat of the Sahara Desert will further reduce rainfall in MENA in coming years. Growing desertification of the region will make it difficult to grow and sustain olive trees because they need fertile soil and warm, but not excessively hot, climate.
Artificial irrigation might not be a long-term solution since olive trees like natural rainfall. The effects of climate change on the health of olive trees in MENA and across the Mediterranean region is increasingly alarming. The loss of these ancient trees would be devastating for the entire MENA region on many levels – cultural, religious, spiritual, economic, and historical.
The destructive impact of climate change on olive trees is already visible from Tunisia to Palestine, and Turkey to Italy. Changing rainfall patterns, early spring frosts, increasing droughts and floods, strong winds, insect infestations (the so-called olive fly), and the spread of harmful bacteria in olive trees have plummeted olive harvests in countries across the Mediterranean.
Extreme heat reduced the harvest of olives and olive oil production in Palestine and Israel in 2017. Palestinian farmers, who rely on olives to support themselves amid the worsening political situation, complained last year that drought and the olive fruit fly infestation created the worst olive season in years.
While Tunisia, the world’s second largest olive producer after Spain, had a better harvest this year compared to the last, the prognosis for olive trees in this North African country is unsettling given that about two-thirds of its territory face desertification and the supply of freshwater is declining. This problem is shared by other countries in the MENA region.
According to Tunisia’s Ministry of Agriculture, the country’s 3,000-year of olive production could be halved by 2030 because of climate change. So far, attempts to irrigate olive trees with well water in Tunisia have been unsuccessful since prolonged droughts have turned the water salty, eventually drying it up. Up to 80 percent of the country’s olive trees rely purely on rainfall.
Turkey has been increasing olive tree farming for more than a decade. While the country has a potential to become a prominent olive oil producer, Turkish farmers are wary of the effects of climate change on their ambitious production goals. Impacts of extreme weather over the past four years have made the future of olive oil production in Turkey unpredictable. Between 2018 and 2019, olive oil output in Turkey fell by 37 percent.
By far the most dramatic collapse of olive trees has been in Italy over the past several years.
By far the most dramatic collapse of olive trees has been in Italy over the past several years. One of the major producers of olive oil in the world, Italy experienced a nearly 60-percent decline in olive harvests last year, which devasted thousands of Italian farmers. This February, Italy’s olive growers descended on the streets of Rome to support the agricultural sector and do something about climate change.
Manifestations of extreme weather, including spring frosts and prolonged droughts, and the spread of bacteria called Xylella fastidiosa, which eat through the tree arteries that absorb moisture, have left millions of olive trees diseased or dead in Italy. The bacteria are believed to easily spread to olive trees under the changing climate. There are fears that Xylella fastidiosa, which originated from Central America, will also proliferate to the Middle East.
Apart from the bacteria, olive fruit flies threaten the health of the trees. These pests lay eggs inside or outside of olive fruits, making them unsuitable for oil production because they make the oil more acidic. As such, they are one of the main threats to olive trees all across the Mediterranean.
But hope springs eternal. Italian researchers are finding olive tree species resistant to the bacteria, which are growing well and producing fruit. They are also purposely infecting olive tree saplings with the bacteria in hopes that they will develop immunity and grow without catching the disease as they mature. Time will tell if Italy’s approach to saving its olive trees from the bacteria will be successful.
Since nobody can predict or control climate change, the best approach is adaptation. As part of adaptation, Tunisian authorities advise their farmers to grow olive tree species that are most resistant to drought, preferably in the northern part of the country, where rainfall rates are higher compared to other areas of Tunisia. Other countries in MENA may need to do the same – cultivate local drought-resistant tree species and grow them in more fertile soils.
Despite the wild fluctuations in olive harvests and oil production across the Mediterranean, some agronomists and researchers believe that climate change could be a boon for olive trees.
However, despite the wild fluctuations in olive harvests and oil production across the Mediterranean, and the downright crisis in Italy, some agronomists and researchers believe that climate change could ultimately be a boon for olive trees. According to one model, an increase in temperature by 1.8 degrees Celsius is likely to increase olive harvests in 97 percent of the world’s olive oil producers.
The model believes that the higher temperature will also weaken the ability of the olive fruit fly to survive in the Mediterranean region. While the model is optimistic about the future of olive trees in the region, one cannot ignore their ongoing decline, particularly in light of growing desertification and dwindling rainfall in MENA. It is perhaps safe to look for the best adaptation techniques to ensure that this ancient tree continues to thrive under the shifting climate.