Beautiful But Deadly

In ancient times, to eat an olive was to touch the gods. The Greeks believed it was Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, who gave mankind the divine fruit. They used it to anoint their bodies. The Romans, too, coveted the precious crop, and later the Venetians, who shipped it around the Mediterranean from Palestine to Morocco and Spain. Civilizations have changed but not our appetites. We moderns cherish the olive for our health, a staple of garden salads and organically correct cooking. But while the olive may be good for body and soul, it turns out it isn't so good for the land.

Environmentalists warn that humanity's love for olives may be dangerously misplaced. Yes, few things are quite so pleasant as a drive along the coasts of Portugal or Greece, where the land is rich with olive groves, leaves shimmering in the wind. But truth be told, Homer's sylvan glades are becoming something of a pest. In recent decades a growing number of farmers (not to mention rapacious multinational agro-conglomerates) are mass-producing the once rare tree. All around the Mediterranean, huge olive plantations are sucking the soil dry, depleting nutrients, producing near-deserts and endangering indigenous flora and fauna. If the trend continues, predicts Richard Perkins of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, "the future will be a poisoned environment."

The problem grows from a very modern root: European Union subsidies. Olive grants make up 7 percent--or $2 billion--of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy. Because the system rewards farmers on the basis of how much they produce, they have every incentive to overplant. The more they plant, the more money they make. The result, from Tuscany to the Peloponnesus: Olives R Us. Damaso Gonzalez, an olive farmer in Campo Real, outside Madrid, puts it baldly. He has planted 1,500 new olive trees over the past four years. "The EU subsidy is very important," he says. "Otherwise this business would not be profitable."

The environmental impact is proving calamitous. In Spanish Andalusia, so many olives have been planted (destroying ground cover) that topsoil now just blows away--80 million tons a year. The Guadalquivir river basin--a famed wildlife haven in southern Spain--has been almost diverted into olive groves, destroying animal habitats for everything from quail to the near-extinct Iberian lynx. Pollution is rampant, due to the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides, while traditional woodlands and fields give way throughout the region. "Where you once saw vineyards, you now see olive trees," laments Nikos Papadontonakis, agricultural specialist with the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute on the island of Crete.

Little relief is in sight. EU Agricultural ministers recognized the growing problem as early in 1998. But proposals to modify the debilitating subsidy system have gone nowhere, and recently Mediterranean growers successfully lobbied to put off any talk of reforms until at least 2003. Meanwhile, olives continue their inroads. How ironic. The very embodiment of our Greco-Roman civilization, now a destroyer.

Beautiful But Deadly | News