Olive growth provides a sustainable way forward in Morocco

Olives are more than food for vendor Mohamed Filale – they are a way of earning a living. In 30 years of working at a fruit stand in Rabat, Filale has supported himself and his family by selling one of Morocco’s most popular foods.

“We live off of the olives,” he said.

This story is the same for numerous competing vendors lining the streets in Morocco’s “souks,” or markets. Olives are a staple in the Moroccan diet, and they are also one of the country’s most prominently exported items. But a serious problem looms: the World Bank projects water availability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region could drop by 50 percent per capita by 2050. This could drastically impact olive growth, leaving few prospects for the estimated two million Moroccan people who depend on their production.

Photo Credit: Al DragoOlives are sold on the street of the medina by a vendor who only wanted to be identified as Omar. He offers 11 different varieties of olives, all picked in Morocco. Morocco, which is already the second largest olive exporter, hopes to double production by 2020 to 2.5 million, according to La Semana Vitvinicola.

Farther down the winding streets of the medina, the traditional section of Rabat, vendor Mohamed Hashimi is surrounded by crates of onions, tomatoes, olives and grapes. Although he sells a variety of fruit, the cornerstone of his profit comes from the olives.

Predicting what he would do without them, he shrugged slightly and said, “[Only] God knows.”

The potential decrease in olive production is a frightening prospect for Morocco, currently the second largest producer of table olives and aiming to double area with olive orchards to 3.2 million acres by 2020.

“Our life is with the olives,” said Hashmi, who has been selling from his stand for 10 years. Neither he nor Filale have given much thought to the impact of climate change on olive production.

However, the Moroccan government has already begun to move towards a solution. In 2008, Morocco created the Plan Meroc Vert (The Green Morocco Plan), aiming to focus on sustainable agricultural growth through 2020. The plan includes sustainability incentives like offering equipment subsidies to farmers to support the creation of new drip irrigation orchards.

“The key success factors of the olive oil market are the enhancement and stabilization of olive yields, improvement of olive oil quality, and reduction of production costs,” said Vinay Nangia, a researcher with the Program for the Development and Dissemination of Sustainable Irrigation Management in Olive Growing (IRRGAOLIVO). “There is great potential for water saving in olive production in Morocco.”

Nangia and his colleagues have been working with the Moroccan National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) to develop and implement irrigation techniques.

Their findings, thus far, have been hopeful. They found that drip irrigation saved 63 to 77 percent of water used, while still increasing crop yield. Research by the IRRGAOLIVO project also found that many farmers understand the benefits of the system. About 74 percent said they recognize drip irrigation as the best way to save water.

While solutions exist, transformation of farmland takes time and finances. Of the 528,000 acres of olive fields in Morocco, only 48,000 are drip irrigated according to the 2013 IRRIGOLIVO report.

Back on the busy street corner of the Rabat “souk,” these challenges seem worlds away as Filale smiles and taps his hand on his knee in uneven rhythm, waiting for another customer. He has bought his olives, which come from near Fes, the same way for years without much worry about rain or irrigation.

“Without olives I would have to close my shop,” he says. “They are my life.”

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