Interview: Abdellatif Ghedira
How does Tunisia contribute to the global production and trade of olive oil?
ABDELLATIF GHEDIRA: Tunisia is a founding member of the International Olive Council and is very active in the organisation, which comprises almost 96% of all producing countries. In 2018 Tunisia was the fourth-largest producer in the world with roughly 140,000 tonnes, behind Spain (1.7m tonnes), Italy (350,000 tonnes) and Greece (260,000 tonnes).
International olive oil trade has averaged 850,000 tonnes per year since the 2014/15 season. Tunisia accounted for 18% of globally imported goods over this period to rank third, after Spain (33%) and Italy (25%). Spain imports an annual average of 60,000 tonnes, hitting a record 105,000 tonnes during the 2014/15 season. Meanwhile, Italy imports an annual average of 50,000 tonnes and registered a record of 180,000 tonnes in 2003/04. While olive oil only represents 3% of the total volume of vegetable oils traded across the globe, it accounts for 28% of worldwide market’s value, and demand is constantly growing in countries such as the US – which accounts for onethird of global trade – Brazil, Japan, Canada and Russia.
In terms of global exports, how would you describe the potential of Tunisian packaged olive oil?
GHEDIRA: Tunisia has always been one of the most important players in the global market, exporting 75% of its production. Olive trees are a source of revenue for the majority of farmers and make up about onethird of available agricultural land.
Since colonial times, Tunisia has been a bulk carrier, exporting its production to Malta, France and Italy, and international traders would directly source the goods from Tunisian producers or stores.
Some 20 years ago the private sector started taking over the National Olive Oil Board of Tunisia, which currently accounts for around 90% of the export market. A growing number of private operators have organised themselves through the medium of export associations, in addition to managing the Fund for the Promotion of Packaged Olive Oil. Local producers are also investing in the production of high-quality olive oil and in overseas marketing operations.
Moreover, we have witnessed recent international awards and prizes for Tunisian packaged olive oil: the International Olive Council ranked Chemlali and Chetoui varieties among the world’s best olive oils in its 2018 Mario Solinas competition.
Although there is still a significant gap between Tunisia and other producing countries in the export of packaged olive oil, the country is consolidating its international position. Tunisia is already exporting to more than 50 countries around the globe. Tunisian olive oil has also sold quite well in several European countries, including Spain and Italy. I believe that there are opportunities for high-quality Tunisian packaged olive oil in almost any market.
What is being done to improve land productivity and reduce the impact of climate change?
GHEDIRA: The strategic choice of conventional oleiculture contributes to reducing the impact of climate change. Total arable area in Tunisia dedicated to olives is 1.9m ha, with average density of 50 olive trees per ha, varying from four olive trees per ha of arable land in the south to 600 per ha in the sub-humid areas of the north and in irrigated areas, and 1600 per ha in certain hyper-intensive farm operations. Limited water resources means that the vast majority of farming depends on rainfall, as less than 4% of farmland is irrigated. Therefore, Tunisia is closely following the implementation of new technologies and innovation in irrigation practices. In fact, a number of these modern techniques have been mastered by Tunisian experts. Meanwhile, the country’s capacity to significantly increase its share of irrigated land and boost access to finance for farmers remains an ongoing challenge.
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