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How sustainable is extra virgin olive oil?

How sustainable is extra virgin olive oil?

Food and agriculture have a direct impact on the environment, with food contributing over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions1, and agriculture using around 70% of global freshwater withdrawals2.  This inextricable link means that when making healthy eating recommendations, the environmental impact must also be considered. So, while the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil are well established, people are beginning to ask the question – how environmentally friendly is it?  Read on to find out how extra virgin olive oil compares to other cooking oils when it comes to crop sustainability.

Extra virgin olive oil is the only mainstream cooking oil to act as a carbon sink

One key advantage of extra virgin olive oil when compared to other mainstream cooking oils is the olive tree’s ability to act as a carbon sink. This means that olive trees trap more carbon from the atmosphere than they release3.  In fact, the International Olive Council has estimated that producing 1 litre of extra virgin olive oil captures an average of 10.65kg of carbon from the atmosphere4. In other words, one hectare of the average olive grove neutralises the carbon footprint of a person, and the worldwide olive oil industry absorbs the emissions of a city of around 9 million people.

Extra virgin olive oil and water usage

Extra virgin olive oil is an evergreen perennial crop and is highly efficient in the use of water, as well as fertilizers.   Olive trees are relatively hardy when it comes to tolerating drought and low water conditions, meaning they can tolerate extremely dry conditions. While this will of course affect the production of olives, it does mean the tree can survive dry conditions without dying and will recover once more water is available.  When directly compared to other crops, olive trees need 30% less water than the benchmark crop (close cut grass) to be fully irrigated5, 6.

Extra virgin olive oil and biodiversity

The diversity and richness of all living organisms on land and in water is necessary for the stability of ecosystems, and productivity and resilience of food productions systems.  Of more than 14,000 edible plant species, only 150-200 are used by humans, with only 3 contributing 60% of the calories consumed by humans (rice, maize wheat)7. Just 3 oils contribute to 68% of the calories consumed by humans from this food group (palm oil, soybean oil and rapeseed/canola oil).

Olive trees provide a great level of biodiversity and have a very limited negative impact from the land-system change. In comparison, palm oil and soybean oil production has been associated with deforestation in areas such as Southeast Asia and the amazon.

Extra virgin olive oil’s role in sustainable dietary patterns

The food we eat has a great impact on the climate, and healthy eating recommendations are now expected to incorporate sustainability principles.  In 2019, the EAT Lancet report proposed a reference diet that is healthy for both people and the planet.  This reference diet calls for a ‘flexitarian’ approach to eating and a diet largely made up of plant-based foods7.  The diet includes recommended volumes of different foods, with 20-80g of unsaturated fat to be consumed daily7.  This is equivalent to 2-3TB of extra virgin olive oil, which is an amount in line with other published literature describing the health benefits associated with extra virgin olive oil.

A good example of a dietary pattern that is in line with the EAT-Lancet report is the Mediterranean diet.  This largely plant-based diet includes extra virgin olive oil as the main dietary fat, and in quantities in line with the EAT Lancet recommendations.

Overall, when compared to other cooking oils, it is clear that extra virgin olive oil is the most sustainable, as well as being the healthiest option.

View article references

  1. Poore J, Nemecek T. Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science. 2018 Jun 1; 360 (6392): 987-992. doi: 10.1126/science.aaq0216
  2. (2011). The state of the world’s land and water resources for food and agriculture (SOLAW) – Managing systems at risk. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome and Earthscan, London
  3. Fernández-Lobato, R. García-Ruiz, F. Jurado, D. Vera. Life cycle assessment, C footprint and carbon balance of virgin olive oils production from traditional and intensive olive groves in southern Spain. J Environ. Manage. 2021 Sept; 293: 112951. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2021.112951
  4. International Olive Council, 2020; https://www.olioofficina.it/en/knowledge/agricolture/the‑carbon‑footprint‑of‑olive‑oil.htm, accessed May 2022;
  5. Connor DJ; Fereres E (2004). The physiology of adaptation and yield expression. In Olive. Horticulture Reviews vol 31 (in print)
  6. FAO Chapter 6 – ETc – Single crop coefficient (Kc). Crop evapotranspiration – Guidelines for computing crop water requirements – FAO Irrigation and drainage paper 56. 1998. Rome, Italy
  7. Willet, W et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet 2019; 393: 447-92