More than a mere agricultural produce, the olive tree and the oil it produces, are deeply entrenched in Tunisia’s Mediterranean culture. With a production estimated this year at 165,000 tons, Tunisia is the world’s second largest olive oil producer after the European Union.
In spite of the fact that this year’s yield is inferior to the record 200,000 tons reached last year, Tunisian olive oil production is still one of the most important in the region and in the world.
The sector plays an important part in Tunisia’s economy, as it employs some 309,000 farmers who are fully or partially involved in it. It is estimated that the sector is a source of income for some one million people in Tunisia.
The importance granted to the sector through a series of incentives and legislative decisions destined to boost the planting of olive trees, especially in arid and semi arid areas, have enabled it to treble the country’s production between 1960 and 2008.
Nowadays, olive groves cover some 1, 7 million hectares and number 70 million trees. The country also comprises some 1700 oil presses, and its stocking capacity amounts to some 350,000 tons.
The recent world wide interest in organic olive oil, has done a lot in branding Tunisian olive oil, which for too long has suffered from a lack of image. Organic olive oil with its strict labelling regulations, has opened up a niche for an increasing number of Tunisian producers who have invested in the production and processing of this much sought product.
Figures recently released by the Tunisian olive oil Board, show that 70% of the country’s olive oil production is exported. Local consumption of the golden liquid which is relatively high -as Tunisian households are traditionally great consumers of olive oil- soaks up the remaining 30%.
This relatively high rate of consumption which is not unusual in the Mediterranean region, can be explained by the long history of olive oil in Tunisia; dating back to the 8 th century BC, the olive tree was cultivated respectively by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans and the Arabs.
The novelist Lawrence Durrell best illustrates the civilizational importance of olive oil when he writes that “no other products of nature have so much shaped civilizations from remotest antiquity to the present, than olive oil”.
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