I am convinced that most of the rather complex and longstanding planetary problems of our time can be solved by looking at our dinner plates. Let me explain why.
Europe produces a lot of olive oil, and when I say a lot I mean 70% of the world market. We use it for cooking, of course, but also in hand and body lotions, as a food preservative and even as fuel. To some extent we can say that olive oil runs through our European veins. However, olive oil is much more than a commodity; it is also inherently linked to our culture, our landscapes and our way of life. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone when I say this. When I think of olives and olive oil, I think of warm sunsets, quiet hillsides where sheep or goats thrive, and a blue sky full of bee-eaters with black wings, dragons and imperial eagles.
The problem … as always … is that human greed often destroys these images.
It all started in 2018 in Andalusia, Spain, with a picture and a small, rather hidden report. The report was the first to link intensive olive oil production, mechanical night harvesting and the death of wild birds. The numbers were shocking: more than 100 dead birds per hectare, but then an extrapolation formula was applied to the entire Andalusian olive grove, resulting in the horrific number of 2.6 million birds dead per year.
The pictures of dozens of dead Blackcaps Silvia atricapilla, Thrushes Turdus philomelos or Chaffinches Fringilla Coelebs under freshly picked olives did the rest. Pretty soon, bird lovers, environmentalists, foodies and consumers around the world were against their supermarkets, against their politicians and farmers as well turned against us at BirdLife International and asked for answers and solutions. There was also a smaller but significant movement from those who advocated an immediate and radical boycott of olive oil products … something that is far from promoting sustainable agriculture, for hundreds of smallholders who already have Having trouble getting a death sentence would mean with COVID-related crisis and globalization.
As complex as it was, the BirdLife family quickly realized that migratory birds could not endure any threat in addition to their already dangerous migration routes. Our partners SEO / BirdLife (Spain) and SPEA (Portugal) worked with us to deliver a simple message: the impact is real and needs to be addressed. Yes, but not all olive oil comes from intensive farming and is not collected mechanically at night. We also work with the olive producers to find synergies and promote sustainable olive production. If you’d like to see an example, check out the extraordinary work of the EU-funded LIFE Olivares vivos project.
Three years later, our efforts and international coordination have reversed that story. Both Spain and Portugal analyzed the real impact of this method (with observed mortality between 30 and 100 birds per hectare).
Then in March 2020, according to evidence and our international pressure, the night harvest of olives in olive groves in the Spanish and Portuguese fields was banned. This was a huge achievement for the conservation and sustainable food movement.
Let me put this out loud and clear: European olive oil is safe for our birds to buy and use.
As a European and a fan of olive oil, I can’t help but celebrate this excellent news.
As a biologist who is so used to reporting on the difficulties related to the loss of European biodiversity, I am pleased to share this news with all of you.
As the Director of Conservation at BirdLife International, I have to tell you that we still have important things to do. The threat of intensive agriculture, whether olive groves or not, continues to destroy biodiversity and birds. Years of poor EU funding, preferring production to biodiversity, have deteriorated our fields and reinforced the deeply flawed concept of quantity versus quality. This is undoubtedly the last battle for which we ask for your support every day, because we are convinced that what we have on our plate must not only be delicious for us humans, but must do justice to all living beings with us.