by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, March 6 (Xinhua) -- Extreme weather has dealt a devastating blow to Italy's olive oil sector, slashing production by 57 percent. Some expert said it is most likely turning Italy -- usually the world's second leading producer of olive oil -- into a net importer.
The latest olive oil production figures are the lowest for the country in at least 25 years. Farmers, scientists, and other key analysts are blaming climate change for an unusually cold spell in February and March last year, just when trees would normally be in bloom, followed by a hot and dry summer that further reduced production.
"The Mediterranean region has been known for its mild weather conditions," Mariagrazia Midulla, head of the climate and energy section at WWF-Italia, a conservation group, told Xinhua. "Now it is becoming a litmus test for the impacts of climate change. Even typical crops like olives are undergoing profound changes."
According to data from the European Commission, temperatures in the Mediterranean basin have risen by around 1.4 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels, higher than the average global change of about 1 degree so far. Meanwhile, rainfall near the Mediterranean is down 2.5 percent.
In addition to unusually cold or hot weather and changing rainfall patterns, climate change can allow certain plant diseases to spread into areas with no resistance to them.
The problems were most severe in Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot-shaped peninsula, which produces around half of Italy's overall production of what in Italy is a culinary staple.
According to Edoardo Zanchini, vice-president of Legambiente, an environmental lobby group, the weather problems have wider impacts in parts of the country least able to withstand them.
"A region like Puglia is particularly fragile economically, and when olive oil makers make less oil, it has an economic impact," Zanchini said in an interview.
Nicola Di Noia from the farmer's union Coldiretti, is among those calling for government to launch programs to help farmers adapt to frequent changes in weather patterns. But he said that farmers themselves also have to avoid adaptation options that might reduce the quality of the olive oil they produce.
"The only way Italian olive oil producers will survive over the long haul will be for them to focus completely on making top level oil," Di Noia, who is the head of Coldiretti's olive oil division, told Xinhua. "Weather conditions and pressure from consumers are making some consumers look for ways to produce oil for less."
"That might produce some relief in the short term," he said. "But in the long run it makes it impossible to differentiate Italian olive oil from that of other countries."
With the big drop in production, Italy, normally the world's second largest olive oil producer behind Spain and a major exporter, will probably not have enough oil for domestic use. Coldiretti said the country could be forced to import olive oil for domestic use starting as soon as next month.