Green OlivesBy Kalynne Dakin
Through a partnership with the US-based World Environmental Center, Chilean olive oil producers are making their production practices greener in a bid to polish their international image.
Olive oil has come under greater scrutiny as global trends see more salads dressing Mediterranean style. Chilean olive oil is internationally recognized for its high quality – 11 producers received outstanding scores in the 2014 edition of olive oil guideFlos Olei– but up-and-coming exporters have recently gone greener in an attempt to make their products stand out from the competition.
“This benefits productivity, but the other benefit we see is improving the image the industry projects to the world,” said Gabriela Moglia, general manager of the industry association ChileOliva, which represents 70% of Chile’s olive oil producers.
Chilean olives yield less than 2% of the olive oil produced worldwide, with most ending up on supermarket shelves in the United States, Spain and Italy, but this share has been growing.
In 2011, ChileOliva was selected by US-based non-profit World Environmental Center (WEC) to participate in a pilot project aimed at improving environmental performance and energy efficiency through cleaner production practices. The project was made possible through an agreement between the US Department of State and WEC, which aims to help small enterprises in countries that have signed free trade agreements with the United States.
Moglia said the industry saw two advantages.
“The first and most concrete is lower production costs,” she said, adding that energy bills can devour anywhere from 20% to 30% of a company’s budget. Since many olive plantations are located in hilly areas, water for irrigation has to travel upward and a long way to reach plants, which takes energy. “Any savings mean meaningful benefits for the companies,” she said.
As a result of the project, companies are also conserving water, a resource that Chileans have learned not to take for granted. Chile’s Atacama Region — the northern limit of national olive farming — has the driest desert on Earth, and well-documented contempt for those who needlessly guzzle away its precarious livelihood.
“In certain markets, consumers are going to require sustainable measures for the environment’s sake and out of concern for themselves, so it’s also a marketing advantage,” said Moglia.
The WEC peeled through the profiles of dozens of small to medium-size companies before pitching its project to ChileOliva. Eleven companies were selected, including the producers of brands such as Olave, Las Doscientas, Sol de Aculeo, Petralia and Casta. Ernesto Samayoa, the WEC’s director of Latin American operations, said the organization was attracted to the young industry’s potential for establishing good practices in its formative years.
“In the beginning we worked together in finding sustainable solutions where the company could be more efficient,” said Samayoa.
This included reducing energy use in irrigation, minimizing wastewater and teaching employees best practices in the milling process, but the shift presented challenges to some of the companies. With too much on their plates, two dropped out of the effort, leaving nine on the vanguard of the WEC’s sustainability movement.
“The important thing is that you get good experience that can be replicated in the industry, and if possible in other industries,” said Samayoa.
Olive trees, planted by Spanish colonists, first bloomed in the New World in the 16th Century. The non-native seeds only took root in a few parts of the Americas, favoring climates similar to their Mediterranean motherlands.
Sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, a number of olive varieties now thrive on Chilean soil. What the country lacks in width it makes up for in over 4,000 kilometers of length, and the collision of mountain and maritime conditions produces microclimates that nurture the fruit throughout the temperate central regions.
Most Chilean olives were for household consumption until Italian immigrant Giuseppe Canepa, better known as the namesake of the Canepa winery, introduced European technology to the nation’s modest production in 1952. Other producers stepped up in the late 1990s after getting acquainted with investors and new marketing strategies.
“Chilean olive oil is maximum quality, extra virgin, and the industry is focused on quality,” said Moglia. Most Chilean olives become oil of the highest standard — in other words, extra virgin — meaning that producers abstain from chemical or high-heat processing.
In 2011, the sector harvested 19,000 tons of olives destined for the press, up from just 598 tons a decade ago. Exports are growing too. According to ChileOliva, in 2012 Chile shipped 10,228 tons of olive oil, or about half of its total production, bringing in US$36.2 million. Today, the country’s 73 producers, most of which are small businesses, employ 2,500.
Last year, more Chilean producers agreed to go greener for the sake of sustainability. In June, the WEC brokered a Clean Production Agreement (CPA) between 20 producers and the National Council for Clean Production, a branch of the Ministry of Economy, Development and Tourism, which promotes environmental development in the private sector.
ChileOliva and the Council will implement cost-cutting measures over the next two years that will extend the lifespan of the WEC project. These will focus on water conservation and energy efficiency, including practices to avoid or diminish CO2emissions, said Jorge Alé, executive director of the Council.
“It’s always more cost-effective to avoid the contamination than to treat it,” he said.
Companies that sign agreements have two years to implement clean production practices and, if they meet the requirements, they receive a certification that should give their products a competitive advantage, said Alé.
Chileans defy regional standards in many ways — they are increasingly wealthy, environmentally conscious and thirsty for olive oil — but even here the environmental cause has been slow to ferment.
“[In Europe and the US] consumers are stricter and that’s why it’s important for industries to be positioned to provide better traceability,” said Samayoa.
According to a recent survey by UC Davis’ Olive Center, consumers in the US claim to know more about olive oil than they actually do and are often unable to distinguish between different grades. But with more Americans buying olive oil for health reasons, Chilean companies are looking to squeeze as much as possible out of their green image.
Kalynne Dakin is a freelance journalist currently based in Washington, DC.