Everyday Enviro with Elise: choosing sustainable (and delicious) olive oil

Everyday Enviro with Elise: choosing sustainable (and delicious) olive oil

    By Elise Catterall  June 9th, 2022

    This week, Elise delves into the sustainability credentials of a food item that both much-loved and ubiquitous across Australian kitchens.


    We know food production and consumption has a major impact on the environment and we need to consider our food choices to live sustainably. One food item that is a staple in almost every Australian kitchen is olive oil. Due to its sheer ubiquitousness, it is something deserves a closer look to see how we can enjoy it in the most eco-friendly way.

    Olive trees have a few huge benefits over other crops that produce cooking oils (specifically soybean, canola/rape, and palm). Firstly, they act as a carbon sink, capturing more carbon from the atmosphere than they release. Secondly, they contribute to biodiversity by providing habitat for a number of flaura and fauna species.

    Together, soybean, canola and palm account for almost two thirds of the calories from cooking oils consumed by humans – that’s huge, especially when we consider how resource heavy the production of those oils is and how, at least for soy and palm, they are associated with deforestation in some regions. Olive trees are also super drought resistant and hardy when water supply is limited.

    From those points alone, olive oil is ahead when it comes to sustainability, but we need to also factor in its production, as well as packaging, and the physical journey the oil takes. There are good and bad in all these things. We’ll start with the physical journey because that is the simplest way to choose better.

    Across the world there are estimated to be 750 million olive oil trees and 95% of those are in Mediterranean regions – especially Italy, Spain, and Greece. The climate in these areas is perfect for olive trees and the oil produced is delicious, but that deliciousness comes with hefty carbon miles. Luckily, Australia also produces delicious olive oil and it comes without the carbon footprint of imported oils, so choosing locally produced options will make a big difference.

    The next easiest way to choose better is packaging. Hands down, the best packaging is aluminium or dark glass. Both materials are recyclable for a start, but also, they protect the oil from photo-oxidation, which occurs when the oil is exposed to light. That means the oil will last longer (especially if they are stored airtight and kept cool) and longer lasting means less waste and less purchasing of new oil.

    Unsurprisingly, the biggest factor in olive oil sustainability is production. There are several production factors that impact sustainability, including chemical/pesticide use, labour practices, soil management, and tree density. As consumers, we don’t really get much of a view into the practices of plantations, but we can be guided by certain certifications. For me, the first thing I look for is organic certification to ensure that pesticides and chemicals that can adversely affect the environment, wildlife, and workers aren’t used in the production of the oil.

    The next most informative certification is fairtrade certification as it assures us not only of sustainable and ethical labour practices but also Fairtrade International’s standards that cover soil erosion and fertility, conservation of protected areas and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. If a product doesn’t carry fairtrade certification, you might want to do some research to see if the brand is ethical. Ethical consumer guide, Shop ethical, gives their ‘Outstanding Product’ rating to several Australian olive oil producers, including Cobram Estate, Red Island and Cockatoo Grove.

    It may seem like a lot to think about, but it will become second nature before you know it and the more boxes you can tick when shopping for olive oil (Australian olives, aluminium/dark glass packaging, organic, ethical), the less impact your choice will have on the environment. That will mean your olive oil is as healthy for the earth as it is for you.

    Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.


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    Elise Catterall

    Elise is a writer, photographer, and naturopath with a passion for nature. She completed a Master of Public Health in 2017 through the University of Sydney. Her photographic work focuses on flowers and plants as a way of celebrating nature. She has been writing for Planet Ark since 2017, sharing positive environment stories, personal environmental experiences and perspectives.

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