14 Aug

The olive oil paradox

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

By Beth Daley,

Americans consume olive oil for their health, but in Morocco, the residue is fouling the water

Morocco is launching an all-out effort to export more of the heart-healthy oil to meet Westerners’ growing demand. But to export agricultural products, it must meet international environmental standards, which in the case of olive oil means, among other things, doing a better job of containing production waste.

At the same time, Morocco is facing severe shortages of fresh water exacerbated by decades of pollution from olive mills. Now the nation’s progressive king has made cleaning the environment a cornerstone of his regime.

“Morocco is trying to clean up its act,” said Jon Cooper, a US Trade and Development Agency consultant who is working with the Moroccan government to develop the nation’s first modern olive oil waste treatment plant. “They want to appeal to the tourist and export market.”

The olive oil wastes, called margines, are the remnants of squeezed skins, ground pits, pulp, salt, and water used in olive oil processing. Sweet-smelling, the margines can dry to a cake-like consistency and be burned as a low-grade fuel. But more often, the still-wet organic waste is dumped directly into waterways, where it sucks up enormous amounts of oxygen and leaves an oily film. It’s estimated that tens of thousands of tons of margines — maybe hundreds of thousands — are produced in the country each year. In Marrakesh, a small mountain of margines filled a production facility courtyard.

And more margines will be created if Morocco succeeds in capitalizing on Westerners’ growing love affair with the Mediterranean diet. Research shows that diets rich in olive oil may help lower the risk of heart disease, reduce the onset of diabetes, lower blood pressure, protect against certain types of cancer, aid digestion, and strengthen the immune system. In the United States, total global imports of olive oil rose from about $408 million in 2001 to $912 million last year and are projected to grow even higher, according to Packaged Facts, a publishing division of MarketResearch.com. Olive oil tasting bars and shops are becoming more popular, including one that opened in a Chicago suburb this year.

“There is an interesting irony,” said Azbar Nuri, an assistant professor at Ege University in Turkey who studies ways to treat olive oil waste. “Olives and olive oil are believed to bring health during their consumption, but the side products could be disastrous for the environment if no precautions are taken.”

Morocco has long been a bit player on the world olive oil stage, making up about 3 percent of the world’s production — far less than Spain’s 36 percent and Italy’s 25 percent. Frequent droughts, desert expansion, and erratic rainfall have made even that small percentage unreliable, and in many years Moroccan production doesn’t match domestic demand.
To increase the market share of Morocco’s own fruity olive oil, King Mohammed VI is working to double the acreage of olive farms to almost 2.5 million by 2010. He’s offering financial incentives to plant trees and invest in olive farms. Outside Marrakesh, in one of the country’s key olive producing regions, the investment can be seen in the neat rows of newly planted olive trees at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. In a nearby government-run agricultural station, scientists recently tested irrigation methods and pesticides and new varieties of trees to boost production. A research scientist picked a green olive bud to give visitors a close-up view and then shook an age-old tree to demonstrate how the branches are made to drop their fruit. `Moroccan olive oil has a very good reputation — it’s very rich — but Morocco doesn’t have a brand name,” says Aziz Debbagh, who grows, produces, and imports olive oil from Morocco to New York for food service companies. He just bought an olive farm near Marrakesh. “That’s what needs to be developed — a niche.”

But as growers gear up to meet world demand, they are also being required to meet European Union and other environmental standards.

That’s hard enough for a country with centralized production factories. But some 60 percent of the olive processing in Morocco is still conducted at an estimated 16,000 traditional presses, according to the Oxford Business Group, which publishes emerging market studies. Many of those presses still use a donkey to turn a stone wheel to help squeeze oil from olives.

The Moroccan government has expressed fears that a new sewage treatment plant being built near Fez will become overwhelmed by margines. And efforts to create holding ponds for the waste in the Sebou River area backfired. There, officials created a centralized location where the waste could dry and be removed. But the expected evaporation never took place, probably because of the small area of the pond and the heavy oil left in the material. What’s more, many producers ignored a rule to bring waste to the ponds because the regulation was never enforced.

Now the government — with funds from the US Trade and Development Agency — has awarded a $322,000 grant to a US engineering firm to conduct a feasibility study to treat the waste. Cooper says the technology could include a system to convert organic waste into gas that could be burned as fuel. That way, he says, farmers would have a financial incentive to invest in the technology.

But some say that financial incentives to better treat waste will also come in the form of markets — as environmentally aware consumers demand sustainably produced goods.

“Moroccan olive growers will have to ensure that they are using responsible methods of production and processing,” said B. Lynn Salinger, vice president and senior economist for the Cambridge-based Associates for International Resources and Development, who works with Moroccan agricultural officials to bolster trade with the United States.

“Or they risk incurring the swift repercussions of the market should consumers hear evidence to the contrary,” she said.

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.

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