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Inside Italy's Olive Oil Crisis

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's an agricultural crisis in Italy. The olive harvest was a bust with yields at historic lows. A headline in the Olive Oil Times blared Italy "Fears Running Out Of Olive Oil By April." Curtis Cord is the publisher of the Olive Oil Times, joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

CURTIS CORD: Thank you, Scott. It's a pleasure to be here.

SIMON: What's happened in the olive groves of Italy?

CORD: Well, first, you know, olive oil production is very cyclical. You're going to have great seasons and then ones that aren't so great after that. But it's even worse than that. For the past seven years in Puglia, which happens to be the area of Italy where the most olive oil production occurs, there's been this bacteria called Xylella fastidiosa, which has ravaged 4 million trees over an area of half a million acres. And so that's been a crisis that has been ongoing kind of moving in slow motion much to the horror of producers there.

Then on top of that, last year, there was this thing called the beast from the east, which was a deep freeze coming across Italy and Greece, and that destroyed a lot of trees. Olive trees are very hardy, but they can't take extreme cold. If it's below 10 degrees Fahrenheit for just a matter of hours, it can kill the tree. So Italian farmers these days are thinking they can't catch a break. This is a confluence of factors, which has led to an overall production of around 185,000 tons this season, which is not very good.

SIMON: Is it really possible that Italy could run out of olive oil next month?

CORD: Well, you know, Italy is not as big, for example, a producer as Spain, you know, and we see a lot of headlines right now that says Italy will be forced to be an olive oil importer. Well, Italy is the largest olive oil importer in the world and always has been, but it has just a limited amount of its own production to go around. So what - I think it's really more a matter of Italy running out of stock, running out of stocks of its own olive oil. And all of the bottling that goes on there and the exporting that goes on in Italy will be using oils from other origins.

SIMON: We have to ask in this day and age, is climate change affecting the Italian olive oil production industry?

CORD: There's been such wild swings. You know, in 2014, we were here talking about a dreadful harvest in Italy that was mostly due to the olive oil fruit fly, which was a big problem following a warmer-than-usual winter. This year, it's a deep freeze. And among farmers in Italy, they feel like these extreme swings are happening more often. Experts that we talked to believe that climate change is a factor.

SIMON: I don't know the Olive Oil Times.

CORD: (Laughter) Well, you should. It's the most read olive oil publication. You know, it seems niche, but there are 3 million people around the world who make - who work to make olive oil. It's a very important food, one of the healthiest products that the Earth provides us. And there's a lot to tell. It's also a cultural cornerstone for the Mediterranean region and the rest of us.

SIMON: Curtis Cord, publisher of the Olive Oil Times, we'll be reading it. Thanks so much, Mr. Cord.

CORD: My pleasure, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.