Editor’s Note: This is part of a monthly series showing the work of the Sustainable Farm Systems project
The cultivation of olives has been present in all Mediterranean civilizations. To our knowledge, it began some five thousand years ago as a result of the domestication of the wild variety of olives. There is abundant evidence that it played a fundamental role in the economy and culture of the region’s bygone societies.
However, we have only aggregated data of production and land area – the real dimension of its presence in Mediterranean landscapes – for very recent periods. In the first decade of the twentieth century, for which we have the first estimations of the global production, three countries, Spain, Italy, and Greece accounted for more than 80% of global production. Today, Spain is the major producer. Historically, these regions also dominated olive culture.
In Spain, the great growth of olive groves has taken place mainly in one region: Andalusia, which comprises eight provinces in the south of the country (Figure 1).
In the mid-eighteenth century, some 225 thousand hectares of olive groves grew in Andalusia. Throughout the nineteenth century, land area devoted to the crop continued to expand until it reached, in 1888, 643 thousand hectares (7.37% of the total surface area of the region and 56% of the national olive-producing surface area). Since then, as olive groves were introduced to other parts of the country, they continued to increase in Andalusia until reaching, today, 1.5 million hectares (15% of world surface area). For more than a century, Andalusia contains the main concentration of olive trees in the Mediterranean, and currently has the highest concentration of cultivated trees in Europe, with a continuous woodland of more than 200 million trees.
However, this history is not just a history of expansion but also a history of change in management, functionality, landscapes, and environmental impacts. Figure 2 shows an approximation of the production and surface area of the main olive landscapes between the late nineteenth and early twenty-first centuries.
Up to the eighteenth century, agroforestry olive groves extended to a similar or greater proportion compared to olive groves organised into rows. There is evidence that in towns with a strong olive-growing tradition olive grove pastures occupied half of the surface area by the mid-nineteenth century. By 1900, and to a much greater extent, around the mid-twentieth century, the dispersed olive grove, with low production and associated livestock, declined and was replaced with a more concentrated plantation arrangement. Those that remained in dispersed conditions were the result of abandonment and marginalisation. In 1975, the Spanish Department of Agriculture counted almost 1.7 million dispersed trees in Andalusia, which together could take up a virtual surface area of 17 thousand hectares. As a companion crop, olive groves slightly exceeded 50 thousand hectares. However, the surface area of non-associated or dispersed olive groves exceeded 1.2 million hectares. In other words, the typology of the agroforestry represented by olive trees, integrated with other land-uses, tended to disappear at the end of the nineteenth century, becoming clearly residual in the mid-twentieth century.
These landscape changes inform us about the shifting management and production patterns in olives, as well as the slow process of domestication of agriculture, from a lower human impact to the industrial systems of today. In preindustrial contexts, an intensification in olive grove production resulted mainly from increasing population pressure and new market opportunities. Industrialization during the 1960s initiated the strong decoupling of land-use and production (Figure 3).
The transition toward industrial processes, such as the application of chemical fertilizers and an increase in irrigated surface area generated a rise in the production of fruit. In Figure 4, energy flows of an olive agro-ecosystems case study are reconstructed. We can observe the growth of external energy inputs as evidence of such transition. However, the nature of the labour applied to the crop also reveals that the intensive tilling of the soil to eliminate competing vegetation during dry periods led to a loss in the total production of biomass, and that the new trees tended to be smaller and focused on the production of biomass in the fruit. Without a deep change in olive varieties, human management altered the harvest index as happened with many cereal varieties.
The industrial transition has also changed the role of olive trees as components in a traditional multi-functional agroecosystem. Massive fodder imports, the adoption of electricity, and the consumption of fossil fuels, have contributed to the decline in number of traditional functions for the olive tree, such as a source of lighting and heating fuel, animal food, or ingredient for making soap (Figure 4).
Consequently, olive groves went from being an extensive, multifunctional crop with little capitalisation, to an intensive organic process until the mid-twentieth century. Following this phase, the crop experienced a period of productive industrialisation and simplification, with production focused on providing good quality oil for the market. All the factors that defined this process of change as well as the uses applied to the tree, have led to different landscape morphologies.
The industrial transition, beyond management intensification and functional change, has brought considerable environmental problems such as biodiversity loss, aquifer contamination, greenhouse gas emissions increases, erosion, and dependence on external consumables, which may compromise the future of the crop in the region. This landscape model has only been in existence for a half-century and, and it has expanded considerably. Everything suggests that over the course of the history of Mediterranean landscapes these current conditions have been the least sustainable.
Infante-Amate, J. (2014): ¿Quién levantó los olivos? Historia de la especialización olivarera en el sur de España (ss. XVIII-XX), Ministerio de Agricultura, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente, Madrid.
Infante-Amate, J., Villa, I., Aguilera, E., Torremocha, E., Guzmán, G., Cid, A., & de Molina, M. G. (2016). En Agnoletti, M. y Emanueli, F. (eds.), The Making of Olive Landscapes in the South of Spain. A History of Continuous Expansion and Intensification. In Biocultural Diversity in Europe (pp. 157-179). Springer, New York.