In an olive grove in Spata, Athens, farmer Konstantinos Markou stands in front of the trunk of an olive tree, about 150 years old, which was among 15 cut down in his neighbor’s field by thieves aiming to turn them into cash.
The rise in the price of olive oil, due in part to Spain’s two-year drought, is giving criminals across the Mediterranean an opportunity to operate. Warehouse burglaries, the dilution of high-quality olive oil with an inferior product and the falsification of shipping information are on the rise in Greece, Spain and Italy, the Associated Press reports in an extensive report.
And perhaps worst of all: gangs using chainsaws to steal full branches or even whole trees from unguarded olive groves.
“Olive thieves can sometimes produce more oil than the owners themselves – seriously,” Mr Markou tells The Associated Press, before leaving to patrol his own olive grove at dusk.
The crimes mean fewer olives for growers, who are already grappling with high production costs and climate change that has brought warmer winters, heavy flooding and more intense forest fires.
Farmers in our country want to bring back the agricultural police department that was phased out in 2010. In the southern region of Puglia in Italy, growers are asking the police to set up an agricultural department. In Spain, a company has developed tracking devices that look like olives to try to catch thieves.
Thefts force an early harvest
The olive groves outside Athens are part of a tradition that dates back to ancient times, in the plains that today surround the airport.
Some trees are centuries old. Most thefts are branch thefts. When an entire tree is cut down, thieves usually cut it into pieces and load the pieces onto a truck, selling the wood to lumberyards or firewood sellers and taking the olives to an oil mill.
“They look for heavily laden branches and cut them down,” explains Nilos Papachristou, who runs an olive mill and a nearby olive grove in a fourth-generation family business. “Thus, not only do they steal our olives, but they also cause serious damage to the tree. It takes 4-5 years to get back to normal.”
Thefts prompt some growers to harvest early, meaning they accept lower yields to avoid long-term damage to their trees. Among them is Christos Bekas, among the farmers at the Papachristos mill.
Mr Bekas, who owns 5,000 olive trees, experienced repeated raids by thieves before deciding to harvest early. This required more than 2.5 times more olives by weight to produce one kilogram of oil than last year, he said.
“And all this after we spent the nights guarding our fields,” he said. “The situation is scary”
The effects on the global market
After decades of growth, the global olive oil market has been disrupted by a nearly two-year drought in Spain, which normally accounts for about 40% of global supply. It is expected to shrink global production to 2.5 million metric tons during this year’s harvest, from 3.4 million tons a year earlier.
Reference prices in Spain, Greece and Italy for extra virgin olive oil reached €9 in September – more than triple the levels of 2019. This translates into higher prices for consumers. In Greece, a 1 liter bottle of extra virgin olive oil rose from 7.5-8.5 euros last year to 14 euros this year.
Spanish police said in October that they had recovered 91 tons of stolen olives in recent weeks. In February, six people were arrested in our country for stealing 8 tons of olive oil in a series of warehouse burglaries over several weeks.
Farmers in Bari, Italy, say thieves have become increasingly brazen, grabbing tractors and expensive equipment along with the olives.
The regional agricultural union appealed for police assistance after reports that 100 olive trees were destroyed or severely damaged in a single incident last month.
“This is a felony,” concludes Mr. Markou, regarding the cutting of the trees. “You’re killing your own story.”