What makes an ethical olive oil?

Far from mass-produced olives and damaging harvesting processes, small-scale olive farms in Spain, Greece and Palestine are using low-intensive and organic farming to produce oil full of flavour while protecting soil and wildlife.

Olive oil might form the basis of many meals, an accompaniment to bread or as a fragrant homemade salad dressing, but we rarely stop to think about where it came from and who produced it.

As a commodity sold in almost every shop, there is usually little transparency offered on bottles either; a labelling technicality means that ‘bottled in’ can mean literally just that, while the olives themselves could have been grown in multiple countries.

The result is as consumer we are disconnected from one of the most staple supply chains, meaning there is plenty of room to hide unethical or harmful practices.

One of these is the effect of olive harvesting on migratory songbirds, roosting at night in the trees. Olives are often harvested at night to preserve their flavour, but research from Portugal’s Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests found that 2.6 million birds are killed each olive harvest in Spain’s Andalusia region, with a further 96,000 in Portugal.

Bright lights from the super intensive harvesting machine disorient the birds, and prevent them from escaping, and they can get sucked into the machines used to harvest the olives.

As always, to avoid harmful practices and buy from farmers who protect wildlife as well as avoid chemicals and enhance soil health, it is often about knowing where your oil comes from and, if you can, choosing to buy direct to support farmers choosing a more sustainable way of growing.

Pepe Aguilera, Huertas Bajas, Andalusia

Pepe Aguilera makes organic olive oil in a low-intensive system and prizing flavour. 

Pepe Aguilera’s family has always had olive groves, but it’s only recently he began processing the traditional Hojiblanca variety sell to organic veg box company Riverford. A mix of green and fully ripened black olives from Aguilera’s 25-year-old groves are cold-pressed at a mill 3km away on the same day they’re picked. The result is that the flavour of the olives is preserved without the need for nocturnal harvesting, meaning songbirds are protected and the farm maintains a modern but not totally mechanised harvest system, where people are still involved. “Using green olives the yield is of course much lower, but we wanted to give the oil the right balance of aroma, bitterness and texture, and personally I think that our oil this year has a taste that reminds of toasted almonds, green grass and walnuts,” he explains.

“During our tastings we even notice an aroma of citrus when pouring the olive oil. People are directly involved in the harvest, as our plantation is traditional with a modern approach to crop training. In other types of plantations, the mechanisation is total and does not discriminate harvesting hours, so that a lot of fauna can suffer, for example by harvesting at night when birds can die.” In the Capina Dauro valley, close to the Sierra Nevada mountains in Spain’s Andalusia region, Aguilera’s olive groves are fertile and retain moisture well. Nevertheless, another concern for him is sustained tree cover that will continue to protect the soil and its wildlife. He says the ultimate aim is to create a ‘cultivated dehesa forest’, one of the best preserved low-intensity farming systems in Europe, which combines traditional land-use and biodiversity conservation. “The maintenance of the vegetation cover all year round ensures shelter for a large number of animals and species, and also protects us from the loss of soil and humidity which is becoming more and more valuable,” he explains.

Pepe Aguilera’s organic olive oil is available to order via organic veg box company Riverford.

Will Rolph, Two Fields Zakros, Crete

The founders of Two Fields olive oil want to prove that a sustainable way of producing olives and oil is commercially viable and encourage other farmers to follow.

At the heart of brothers Harry and Will Rolph’s Two Fields olive oil is a regenerative farming system that prizes enhancing the land they grow on above all else. Their extra virgin olive oil is made from cold-pressed Koroneiki olives to create a fruity taste with a peppery finish, grown on the two fields in a corner of Crete that gave their name to the brand. “Fundamentally, we try to replicate natural systems within our fields and understand we have an ecosystem that’s interlinked, from microbes and mycelium to insects and flowering plants,” says Will Rolph, who learnt how to make olive oil from his brother’s Greek father-in-law. “From local manure, compost and olive offcuts chipped and returned to the land, to experiments with biochar to lock more carbon in the ground, microbial teas and diverse cover crops for soil health and biodiversity – these are key practices for our land. Each is focused on soil health and creating a thriving eco system. Choosing natural pest solutions such as kaolin clay over pesticides has allowed wildflowers, insects, bees and birds to flourish in their natural habitat.”

Rolph explains that how olives are harvested depends on the size of the farm; the bigger the farm, the more mechanized and industrial the harvest. “We’re on the other side of the spectrum, we know every tree, handpick every olive and the process is very hands on. We hold a stick with soft plastic ‘fingers’ which rotate and knock off the olives, going branch by branch, tree by tree. Then hand collect and clean the olives in the nets. With 200 olive trees,  we know where the birds nests are, which are active and where to be careful,” he says. While Two Fields is certified organic and uses no chemical inputs, Rolph says it’s not enough if the label is just seen as the end goal. “Beyond certifications and buzzwords is transparency and trying to have as close a relationship to farmers and producers as possible,” he says. “That’s why going direct is so important if possible and why we share every field practise and have open dialogue with the people who support us.”

Small-scale olive farming is much less harmful to wildlife but depends on shorter supply chains. 

Two Fields Zakros can be bought via their website

Awad Melhim, Zaytoun, Palestine

Farmers like Awad Melhim rely on the income from selling their Fairtrade and organic olive oil for export. 

Traditional, small-scale and organic farmers produce the olives for olive oil brand Zaytoun, which combines environmentally-friendly farming with the economic benefits of buying Fairtrade products from Palestine. In such a dry area, and with little control over their own water supply, Zaytoun olive farmers are focused on regenerative farming that minimises disturbance of the soil and growing different crops in among the trees. Growing a range of different vegetation helps the soil to hold moisture and also increases biodiversity, already a result of a chemical-free organic system. “For example, planting sycamore brings more insects and also birds. Other crops we interplant are grape, fig, carob and ground cover crops,” says Nasser Abufarha, founder of Fairtrade exporter Canaan Palestine.

Under occupation by Israel, Palestinian farmers have little opportunity for the economic benefits of exporting and the oil provides a vital source of income allowing them to invest in their own lives and health. “In Palestine, olive farming plays an important role in the economic picture. Many families depend on it for the daily living as a food and also as financial resource,” explains manager of the Palestine Fair Trade Association, Mohammed Ruzzi. Olive farmer Awad Melhim adds that before Fairtrade, it was difficult to find a consistent income from his olives. “This has empowered us financially and improved the nature of our food. It’s enabled us to invest in planting vegetables around the house such as radish, onions, beans and lentils, so it’s improving our health.” With limited means, hand harvesting is the only option meaning it is done by day and as a low-intensive process that doesn’t harm wildlife. Olives are transported within the same day to the mill for processing to preserve flavour before exporting.

Fairtrade and organic olive oil from Palestine can be bought via the Zaytoun online shop or in various independent retailers. 


Leave a Reply

    1. Hi wtl, the article has now been updated and includes the links for where to find the olive oil. Thanks for bringing this oversight to our attention.

    1. Hi SteveR, just to let you know that we’ve updated the article and there are now links in each section for where to find the olive oils.

  1. It sounds like you can purchase these oils through Riverford. Sorry to infiltrate here, but there’s also the farmer CSA style online collective Crowdfarming

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for bearing with us. The article has now been updated and each section has a link for where to find the olive oils.

  2. I too, like the others, would like to know where to buy these olive oils. Riverford won’t actually deliver to my address so naming other stockists would be most helpful please.

  3. Some years ago I found The Most Delicious organic olive oil grown just outside Spello, Italy. I tried very hard to find a way to import a barrel to share with friends and family. It was practically impossible (because of the costs) for a small, non-regular event. So, yes, I agree with everyone above – it is no use tantalising us with this information, Riverford. Please step up and sell it to us.

    1. I had no idea that wildlife could be harmed because of the night-harvesting of olives (it never even crossed my mind that they might be harvested at night), so thank you, WickedLeeks, for providing this information. Will now give further thought to buying olives with this ethical consideration in mind.

  4. Just for the record – I dislike olives and olive oil, The sight of someone dipping bread into the oil and eating it just turns my stomach. I odiously have no Mediterranean genes whatsoever. Must be a Viking!

  5. organic does not mean cruelty free – nor does vegan!! It is far more nuanced than that. If we want vegetables etc that has not harmed any creature – we will have to pay FAR more for it – because it will take more people, more time, to grow and harvest and prepare it that way.
    But compared to chemical farming – where millions of insects are killed every step of the way – organic far better overall. Organic agri is at least preserving the soil bacteria and its methods of insect ‘control’ (which is not always killing – but sometimes is!) are far more targeted and therefore kill less ….
    Still – are you going to check every individual olive to see if there is a worm in it before it goes to the mill and gets crushed into the oil?? Probably not – I have grown fruit and veg organically and harvested olives many times – it is impossible to live without causing the death of other creatures.
    What we can do is minimalize that – do it with forethought and respect – become part of the web – not destroy the web….
    Conscious farming and gardening and plenty of rewilding – that’s the ticket!!


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