Financial Tribune| Zeinab Sohrabi: With around 84,000 hectares of olive orchards and an annual production of 100,000 tons, Iran is ranked by the International Olive Council as 14th in the world in terms of area under olive cultivation and 17th in terms of production, the Ministry of Agriculture’s head of the Expansion and Improvement of Olive Orchards Group, Mahmoud Emami.
Iran shares many geographical characteristics and common historical roots with Mediterranean countries, which are home to the major known cultivars of olive. It lies in Eastern Mediterranean, the cradle of ancient civilizations and the possible birthplace of the olive tree.
The early history of olive tree in Iran is shrouded in uncertainty, but olive is mentioned in ancient Iranian religious hymns dating back 2,000 years. This is how olive production in Iran is explained on the IOC website.
“The quality of Iran’s olive and olive oil is unrivaled owing to the country’s distinctive climate. Olive tree is subtropical and so are most regions in Iran. Olive trees are exposed to direct sunlight for a prolonged period of time here, which is considered a comparative advantage for olives cultivated in our country,” Emami told Financial Tribune in an exclusive interview.
Per capita annual olive conserve and olive oil consumption in Iran, according to Emami, stand at 850 grams and 140 grams, whereas the global average is 360 grams and 430 grams respectively.
“The Olive Group initiated the Olive Project in the fiscal March 1993-94 with the aim of meeting a portion of domestic demand for vegetable oils and increase the share of olive oil (which stood at 20-30 grams per capita that year) in the basket of Iranian households. So far, we have been successful, yet we are not in an ideal situation,” he said.
The official noted that last year, close to 5,700 tons of olive oil were produced in the country and nearly the same amount was imported to meet the domestic demand of over 11,000 tons.
“Unfortunately, olive oil is smuggled into Iran, but the exact amount has yet to be announced,” he said.
Production Higher Than Global Average
Emami further said Iran’s average production per hectare, which is 2,300 kilograms, exceeds the global average amounting to nearly 1,900 kilograms, yet compared with the capacity created by the climate, the domestic performance is not satisfactory.
“Among the impediments in the way of production is that our farmers lack the latest know-how in olive cultivation. Poor farming methods decrease production. Out of the 84,000 hectares of olive cultivars in Iran, 60% have fruit-bearing trees,” he said.
“To overcome this hurdle, we have held and continue to hold special courses to educate farmers on how watering, pruning, grafting and fighting pests must be done in a way that production is increased and resources, including water and soil as well as fertilizers, are used efficiently.”
Another issue, Emami said, is that there is no well-organized and disciplined union or association through which farmers and owners of oil extraction factories can convey their needs and problems to officials in charge.
Factories Working at Half Capacity
Agricultural Ministry’s Director General of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits Department Abolqasem Hassanpour told Financial Tribune that 70% of domestic production are used to make olive conserves and the remaining 30% go to oil extraction factories.
“There are 87 processing and oil extraction factories in the country that work at 50% of their capacity at best, since production is not enough due to the water crisis,” he said.
“Global production of olives stands at 17 million tons [per year]. Our production amounts to around 100,000 tons, from which 65,000 tons of conserves are produced. Imports of olives, fresh or processed, are banned as are the majority of fruits. This is a precaution taken by the government to prevent the transmission of pests and infectious agents (pathogens) into the country.”
Hassanpour said the Agriculture Ministry plans to increase land under olive cultivation by 50,000 hectares within the next five years.
“We aim to use modern methods to develop and improve 40,000 hectares of existing orchards within the same period,” he said.
“The main hubs producing olives in Iran are the provinces of Gilan, Qazvin, Zanjan, Fars and Markazi. The industry has created more than 300,000 direct and indirect jobs. By injecting liquidity and working capital in the olive business, we can expand orchards and increase production, and create even more jobs.”