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 March 18, 2019
Drought? Disease? Insects? Bitter cold? In Italy, it's olive the above

 Maybe, like climate change, it's creeping up on us and we don't feel its day-to-day impact, but according to an unscientific survey of shoppers and suppliers, the rising cost of olive oil hasn't been noticed or at least had an impact.

It's like the boiling-frog fable, only instead of an amphibian not realizing it's being cooked as the water temperature slowly rises, it's tens-of-millions of olive trees dying from, among other things, parching heat.

The Italian olive crop was decimated this year. The harvest was down 57 per cent, it was the worst reduction in olive-oil production in 25 years in Italy.

"Our Italian olive oil comes from Sicily, which wasn't affected," said Trisha LeVatte, whose daughter Michaelanne Buckley Dodds owns the Vancouver Olive Oil Company on West Broadway in Kits. "Our olives come from Spain, California, Portugal, all over, we're waiting for the Southern Hemisphere harvest. So we rarely see (supply disruptions have) a significant effect on our business."

The store has raised its prices marginally three times in its nine-year history, LeVatte said, because of lower supply and thus higher cost. As well, a 10-per-cent tariff was slapped on olive oil last fall.

In a normal year, Italy produces seven per cent of the world's olive oil, according to the International Olive Council. More than 35 million olive trees have died in Italy this growing season from bacteria or frost.

It is a $1.5-billion "crisis without precedent," according to Coldiretti, an Italian farmers' association.

"And many of those trees have been in the same family for centuries," Dalia Oreskovic, who with her husband Steve owns Coastal Olive Oils in Tsawwassen, said.

Italy expects to run out of its homegrown supply of olive oil next month, putting the country in the humiliating position of having to import the stuff.

As the Olive Oil Times put it in a worldwide survey of olive farmers March 13: "In Australia it was drought. In France there was too much rain. U.S. farmers said excessive heat was a major cause. In Greece it was the olive fruit fly.

"In Italy, all of the above."

Oreskovic said she hasn't noticed a spike in cost from her supplier, Oakland, Calif.,-based Veronica Bradley.

"I just received an order, there was no increase," Oreskovic said. "But it's scary for customers, they don't want to be hit. And we just were hit with a 10-per-cent tariff last year."

Coastal Olive Oils supplier Veronica Bradley --- the same buyer used by the Vancouver Olive Oil Company --- buys its olive oil from Bradley's company Veronica Foods, which in turn buys from all over the world.

Bradley also has her own olive grove and pressing plant in Tunisia.

Veronica Foods' website has an exhaustive guide to olive oil, from the chemistry of grading it ("the best indicator of a good olive oil is obtained by tasting"), to appellation ("a marketing device"), to flavour profiles ("extra virgin olive oils represent extraordinary examples of unique quality").

And if you want fresh, when the oil is at its best, LeVatte said, the southern harvest should begin arriving in July.

"The price to us has gone up a bit, but not to the point we're worried," she said.