Olive Cultivation in Pakistan
How to exploit our potential
You must be aware of the fact that there are several living trees in different parts of the world which are thousands of years old. But do you know that among such ancient trees there is one species still bearing fruit that is also in humans use even today? These are olive trees that are found in many regions. Tucked away in the sleepy village of Bechealeh in Lebanon, 16 olive trees named “Sisters or the Olive Trees of Noah” are the oldest olive trees in the world today.
A few Biblical Scholars believe that these are the trees from which the dove took the branch back to Prophet Noah (AS) when the Deluge subsided. Similarly, Vouves Olive Tree, which is standing in the village of Ano Vouves in the Greek island of Crete, is thought to be between 3000 and 5000 years old. Owing to its historical and ecological importance, this tree was declared a “natural heritage monument” in 1997 by the Secretary General of the Region of Crete. Every year, over 20,000 people from all over the world visit this ancient tree that still produces large olive fruits that are pressed to give a distinctive olive oil. Furthermore, an olive tree in a rural hamlet Bidnija in the northern region of Malta is home to the 2000-year-old trees which have been confirmed by carbon dating, and they continue to produce olives. In addition, Al-Badawi tree, located in the village of Al-Walaja within the Bethlehem district south of Jerusalem, is believed to be 4000 years old. Besides these, numerous living olive trees, thought to be thousands of years old, are found in different countries and are still producing quality fruit. They have witnessed the rise and fall of civilizations, stood against plagues and epidemics, greeted the sun rising and setting down over thousands of days, yet stood defiant in glory and glamour. These are the oldest olive trees alive bearing their soulful fruits, giving their golden oil, and teaching mankind a lesson in sustainability.
Olive tree is among the oldest trees on this planet. It is also one of the most beloved trees in the history of mankind. It has always been a symbol of longevity, peace, harmony, growth, sustainability, wisdom and sapience, respect and honour and friendship. It has also inspired various artists, poets and writers all around the world. Historical evidence suggests that the olive plant was first cultivated some 6,000 years ago in Mediterranean regions. It is also a fact that olive tree is, today, grown in as many as 56 countries. Moreover, the area where these trees are cultivated is growing by almost one percent every year. A wreath of olive branches is emblazoned not only on the flag of the United Nations but also on the flags of seven countries and four states of the United States of America. In the past, an olive wreath was the prize for the winner at the ancient Olympic Games. Olive wreaths were given out during the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens in honour of the ancient tradition.
Olive tree is grown for its fruit from which golden oil is extracted. Moreover, table olives are the ones which are intended to be consumed as food, rather than being used for oil production. Olives and olive oil are food products that are being used since aeons. While it is an essential component of Mediterranean cuisine, it is widely consumed all over the world as food. It is also a source of employment and sustainable economic and social development for tens of thousands of men and women. Owing to their positive environmental impact and nutritious value of the fruit they produce, olive trees are considered unique. It is in this backdrop that the 26th of November is celebrated every year as World Olive Tree Day with an aim to protect this ancient plant and preserve its long-standing value. The Executive Board of the General Conference at its 40th session adopted the draft decision proclaiming 26 November of each year the World Olive Tree Day.
The olive is a well-known evergreen tree that can live and bear fruit for thousands of years. Having the average height of 8–15 m (26-49 ft), the olive trees are native to the Mediterranean region that also includes the coasts of southeastern Europe, West Africa and North Africa. Moreover, this species is also grown in regions like northern Iran and areas in the west of the Caspian Sea. Efforts are also being made to cultivate this tree in many other countries as well. Per the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, olives trees covered an area of 10,513,320 hectares in 2018 which was 26 percent higher than that in 2000. Moreover, the total yield obtained from these trees in 2018 was 21,066,062 tons—35% more than that in 2000.
Spain is the world’s top producer of olive oil and it has the largest area under cultivation, and, thus, the largest production of olives. In 2018, as much as 25 percent of the total area under cultivation around the world was in Spain and it contributed 47 percent to total olive production in that year. It is also to be noted that according to International Olive Council, Spain singularly produced 56 percent of the world’s total olive oil production. It is also interesting to note that with consumption of 515,000 tons in 2018-19, Spain was also the biggest country in terms of consumption of olive oil. In that year, the biggest importer of olive oil was the United States of America which imported 346,000 tons—36 percent of the world’s total production—of this oil. Highest per capita consumption of olive oil in 2017-18—12.4 kgs per person—was recorded in Greece. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), the world trade of olives in 2018 amounted to US$ 604 million, showing an increase of 22.1 percent since 2017.
Olive fruit is an important agricultural produce in the Mediterranean region. They can be green, purple, dark brown, black and even pink in colour. An olive contains 20-30 percent of oil. That is why almost 90 percent of olive production is used to extract oil while the remaining ten percent is used for other purposes. An olive tree produces, on average, 20-30 kgs of fruit while one liter of olive oil is produced from the pressing of 4-6 kgs of olives.
Olive trees can be planted in harsh climatic conditions. Almost 70 percent of olive orchards are rainfed; in some part of the Mediterranean some olive trees are planted in areas having less than 200 mm of rainfall. They are a source of income for a large number of people.
The secret of the olive tree is in two things: (i) its fruit, the olive itself, and (ii) its massive root system that can extend over forty feet wide and 20 feet deep. The roots are so extensive and strong that in times of drought, when other trees die, the olive trees still survive because when they do not get enough water from the skies, they draw that from deep within the earth. Another aspect is that these roots enable the tree to produce olives for hundreds of years; even when it seems that the tree is dead, it still continues to bear fruit. In addition, olive trees are a barrier to desertification and erosion. Olive orchards are a carbon dioxide sink, remove CO2 from the atmosphere and fix it in the soil.
Experts opine that during the extraction of one litre of virgin or extra virgin olive oil, as much 2.5 kg of CO2 is released in the air whereas an olive tree can, on average, remove 25kg of CO2 from the atmosphere. It means that an olive tree absorbs more CO2 and the process of extraction oil from its fruit emits less of that in the air. So, they become a part of the solution to the problem of climate change, and not a part of that.
In Pakistan, olive was introduced first time by Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) in 1986 under an Italian Project titled “Fruit, Vegetable and Olive Project” that was funded by the Government of Italy. After this project, a general survey was conducted to estimate the number of naturally-occurring wild olive species “Olea Cuspidata” in the country. It was found that more than 80 million wild olive plants existed in different districts of Pakistan. Moreover, under the project “Promotion of Olive Cultivation on Commercial Scale,” the PARC planted as many as 280004 plants, which it provided to farmers free of cost, at fields in different districts of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and erstwhile FATA covering a total of 1133 hectares or 2800 acres. Moreover, 21 training sessions were conducted on different aspects of olive cultivation, pruning and management. According to a research paper titled “Scope of Olive Cultivation in Pakistan,” there is a lot of potential for olive cultivation in Pakistan. The paper further says that if eight million wild olive trees present in different provinces are grafted and converted into the productive olive, there is a potential of earning an amount of one billion dollars annually. Similarly, we may earn 9 billion dollars annually if olive cultivation is made on cultivable potential wastelands. Olive plant is locally known as Zytoon in Urdu, Showan in Pushto, Khat in Brahavi and Kow in Punjabi, Sindhi and Seraiki, respectively.
As said earlier, olive is a tree from the fruit of which oil is extracted. It has been mentioned in divine revelations; for instance, it has been called the ‘tree of life’ in Bible; and a scared tree in the holy Quran. Moreover, there are many ahadith wherein eating olives and using olive oil for massage has been advised.
In Pakistan, the production of edible oil is far less than the demand for that—around 12%. On the other hand, owing to people’s eating habits as well as a growing population, the demand for edible oil is soaring. And, in order to meet this demand, the country has to import edible oil on which a colossal amount of foreign exchange is spent. According to Pakistan Economic Survey 2019-20, Pakistan imported 2.748 tons of edible oil by spending an amount of US$ 2.046 billion as compared to 1.98 million tons valued at US$ 1.457 billion in 2016-17—showing an increase of 39 percent in tonnage and 41 percent in value.
In order to reduce the edible-oil import bill, the Government of Pakistan has launched various initiatives, with promotion of research activities to increase per acre yield and increasing the area to cultivate crops being the most prominent. Although these have resulted in an increased yield, yet the production of edible oil is still far less than the actual demand. That is why much attention is being paid on planting oil-producing trees. Olive is one of the most important among such trees. The PARC has declared Barani Agricultural Research Institute (BARI), Chakwal, and Agricultural Research Institute (ARI), Tarnab, Peshawar, as centres of excellence for olive. In addition, Punjab government has declared its Pothwar Region, and KP government its Sang Batti as Olive Valley. Adaptability trials of olive varieties at 93 different locations in the country had been conducted to get the data for optimum performance of some specific varieties under certain environmental conditions.
With the help of other countries, Pakistan is poised to become a new player in the world of olive oil production. Benefiting from strong agricultural cooperation efforts with Italy and Spain as well as commercial cooperation with China, Pakistan began producing olive oil back in 2010. Within the 2019-20 season, the estimated olive oil production capacity in Pakistan is expected to reach approximately 1,400 tons, and 16,000 tons by the year 2027.
With growing awareness about the health benefits of olives and olive oil, the demand for those in Pakistan is growing day by day. Per a pre-feasibility study on “Olive Oil Extraction Units” by Department of Agriculture, Government of the Punjab, the demand for olive oil will grow from the current 3118 tons to 11152 tons within a few coming years. This also highlights the importance of planting more and more olive trees in the country. But, the current production of olive oil is not sufficient to meet even the present demand. According to the abovementioned study, “Currently, in Pakistan, 6 to 8 olive oil extraction units having capacity to process 750 to 1,000 kgs of olive fruit per hour are installed which cannot meet the local demand for olive oil. In 2015, Pakistan imported 2,706 tons of olive oil worth US$ 7.38 million which was 81 percent higher than that in 2011 in terms of tonnage and 72 percent in terms of value. In 2015, Pakistan imported 0.13 percent of the world’s total olive oil imports. Spain and Italy are the major exporters to Pakistan. In 2015, Spain met 84 percent and Italy met 10 percent of Pakistan’s demand.” With prudent planning and policymaking, it is expected that Pakistan will be able to meet 15.24 percent of the local demand from indigenous production of olive oil.
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