I am convinced that most of the rather complex and long-standing planetary problems of our age can be solved by looking onto our food plates. Let me explain why.
Europe produces a lot of olive oil, and when I say a lot I mean 70% of the world’s market. We use it to cook of course, but also in hand and body lotions, as a food preservative, and even fuel…to some extent, we could say that olive oil runs through our European veins. But olive oil is much more than a commodity, it is also inherently linked to our culture, to our landscapes and to our way of life. I am pretty sure that I am not alone when I say that to me, thinking about olives and olive oil means thinking of warm sunsets, of quiet slopes where sheep or goats thrive, and of blue skies dotted with bee-eaters, black-winged kites and imperial eagles.
The problem… as always…is that human greed often destroys those images.
It all started in Andalucia, Spain, in 2018 with a picture and a small, quite hidden, report. The report was the first to link intensive olive oil production, mechanical night harvesting and wild bird deaths. The figures were shocking: more than 100 dead birds per hectare, but then an extrapolation formula was applied to the entire Andalusian olive grove, yielding the horrendous figure of 2.6 million dead birds per year.
Blackcap, copyright Glyn Sellors, from the surfbirds galleries
The images of dozens of dead Blackcaps Silvia atricapilla, Thrushes Turdus philomelos or Chaffinches Fringilla coelebs among freshly picked olives did the rest. Soon enough bird lovers, environmentalist, foodies and consumers around the world turned on their supermarkets, on their politicians and farmers, and on us at BirdLife International demanding answers and solutions. There was also a smaller but significant movement, and that was of those who advocated for an immediate and radical boycott of olive oil products… something that, far from favoring sustainable agriculture, would mean a death sentence to hundreds of small farmers already struggling with COVID related crisis and globalization.
Complex as it was, the BirdLife family quickly understood migrant birds could not bear another threat on top of their already dangerous migratory routes. Our partners SEO / BirdLife (Spain) and SPEA (Portugal) worked with us to convey a simple message:
The impact is real and needs to be tackled. Yes, but not all olive oil comes from intensive agriculture nor is mechanically collected at night. Plus, we are working alongside the olive producers to find synergies and promote sustainable olive production. Want to see an example, check the extraordinary work done by EU-funded project LIFE Olivares vivos.
Three years later, our efforts and international coordination have managed to turn this story around. Both Spain and Portugal analyzed the real impact of this method (with observed mortality ranging from 30 to 100 birds per hectare).
Then in March 2020, following evidence and our international pressure, the nocturnal harvesting of olives in olive groves was banned throughout the Spanish and Portuguese fields. This has been a massive success for the conservation and sustainable food movements.
Let me say this this loud and clear: Buying and using European olive oil is safe for our birds.
As a European and a fan of olive oil, I can’t help but celebrate this excellent news.
As a biologist, so often used to recounting the hardships related to the loss of European biodiversity, I am exultant to be able to share this news with all of you.
As Director of Conservation for BirdLife International, I have to tell you that we still have important things to accomplish. The threat of intensive agriculture, whether olive groves or not, continues to be destroy biodiversity and birds. Years and years of ill given EU funds favoring production over biodiversity have degraded our fields and reinforced the deeply flawed concept of quantity over quality. This is undoubtedly the final battle, the battle for which we continue to ask for your support every day, because we are convinced that what we have on our plate must be not only tasty for us humans, but fair to all the living creatures that live with us.