Israel's Oil Reserves (Extract)

Growth in demand for olive oil has been stoked in recent years by increasing recognition of the health benefits of the "Mediterranean diet"

25olive (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Extract of an article in Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Yoram Shapira feels a connection to every one of the 80 olive trees he grows. "I tend to each one as if it were a baby," says Shapira. "Every olive grower can tell you the exact number of olive trees he's got, because each one is like a friend." Shapira is a former Hebrew University lecturer of Latin American studies and a practicing psychotherapist, but it is evident that his olive grove, from which he produces and sells between 100 to 200 kilograms of olive oil a year, is his special passion. He has written a book entirely devoted to the olive. "Olive trees are monumental," he says. "There is nothing like them. They are beautiful, mysterious, sensitive and strong, not just the bearers of tasty fruit. They are the very soul and symbol of the Land of Israel." The trees in this grove in Agur, a small farming community near Beit Shemesh, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, are currently in their winter slumber, but are so well tended that it is not difficult to imagine their boughs heavy with olives. Olives ripen in late autumn, and the trees seemingly ignore the first harbingers of spring that are evident in the blooming almond trees on the surrounding undulating hills in the Valley of Elah, where David slew Goliath. The biblical countryside is dotted with olive trees and brings to mind the description of the Land of Israel in Deuteronomy 8:8 as "a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey." The olive tree is so deeply rooted in Israel that it is impossible to tell the history of the land without relating to it. The earliest olive press ever uncovered anywhere was found off the coast of Atlit, south of Haifa, in an area that is now underwater but was dry land in the fifth millennium BCE, according to archaeologist Dr. Rafi Frankel. "The olives that were pressed there were apparently picked from wild olive trees, not yet domesticated," says Frankel. "It is unclear exactly when the first olives were domesticated, but the wild species growing then are very close to the domesticated species we have today. The olive tree is a native of Israel." By biblical times, olive agriculture was an extremely significant part of the economy of the Land of Israel. "Digs in ancient Ekron, a major Philistine city 35 kilometers west of Jerusalem, revealed an 'industrial area' located there 2,700 years ago with over 100 olive presses," Frankel told The Report. The business of olives in the land of Israel may have a history that goes back far into the mists of time. But as the demand for olives surges - especially as their health benefits become increasingly well known - the age-old industry is changing. Alongside the millennia-old scene of a farmer shaking the olives from a grove of trees on a verdant hill, another scene may soon be common: olives, grown in the desert using ultra-modern agricultural technology and harvested with the help of infra-red and ultra-sound devices. Some ideas on the subject emerged from a conference on olives conducted at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in Beersheba last month. BGU biotechnologist Zeev Wiesman, who organized the conference, says the accelerated development of the olive industry in Israel is due to increasing demand for olive oil as public awareness of the health benefits of olive oil has grown. A "boutique" olive oil industry, which consists of private individuals like Shapira who bottle their home-grown olive oil, has quietly been burgeoning round the country, alongside the commercial olive industry which has been experiencing a major growth boom in the past two decades. "Given the strong market forces now operating in this field, profitability is particularly high in the olive oil industry today," says Wiesman. Increased demand is forcing the ancient industry to adapt to modern technology, he says. There are about 220,000 dunams (approximately 55,000 acres) of actively cultivated olive groves in Israel, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Annual production of olives for table consumption in Israel is 15,000 tons, valued at 5 million shekels. This is dwarfed by the 150 million shekels olive oil industry, which produces on average 9,000 tons of olive oil a year. Pickled olives account for only 2,000 tons and 1 million shekels in annual sales. Israelis, however, consume more than the country produces, devouring 22,000 tons of olives and 15,000 tons of olive oil a year. The difference is made up through imports of olives from Greece and Turkey and olive oil from Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain. The small amount of olive oil exported from Israel goes to the kosher food market in the United States. Olive oil production has actually doubled since the start of the decade and Wiesman expects that trend to continue. "We expect production to grow to as much as 15,000 tons in the next few years," he says, adding that a surprising breakthrough will help meet the increased demand. "It has been proven that olive groves can be successfully irrigated with the high salt-content water that is available in the Negev. In fact, most of the new olive plantations are now being planted in peripheral areas in Israel, led by the Negev." Growth in demand for olive oil has been stoked in recent years by increasing recognition of the health benefits of the "Mediterranean diet" - at the center of which is a great deal of olive oil consumption. The Mediterranean diet - which in addition to a heavy emphasis on olive oil includes high consumption of fruits and vegetables, moderate consumption of dairy, fish, poultry and wine, and little red meat - is so named because it was the traditional diet of residents of countries bordering the Mediterranean, such as Italy, Greece and Israel. Nutritionists view it as a healthy alternative to the red meat, fat and carbohydrate-focused Western diet associated with weight gain and heart conditions. Studies have indicated that populations adhering to the Mediterranean diet and consuming a significant proportion of their fats in the form of olive oil tend to have lower levels of heart disease. Israel served as the location for one of the largest clinical trials ever conducted to study the relative merits of three popular diets: low-fat, low-carbohydrate, and the Mediterranean diet. The study was conducted, surprisingly, at the Nuclear Research Center in Dimona, one of the country's most secretive locations and, according to foreign publications, the center of Israel's nuclear weapons program. "It afforded ideal conditions for a large study," explains Dr. Iris Shai of the S. Daniel Abraham International Center for Health and Nutrition at BGU, who conducted the study along with colleagues from Harvard University and the Robarts Research Institute in Canada. "It contains a well-stocked central cafeteria serving thousands of employees, and we could easily color-code the meals being served according to which diet they represented, so we could monitor the dietary intake of the participants." (Regularly conducted blood tests also ensured that the participants were adhering to the diets to which they had volunteered.) Approximately 300 Dimona male and female employees aged 40 and up volunteered to take part in the two year study between July 2005 and July 2007, with each participant randomly assigned to one of the three diets. Among the results of the study - which included the surprising conclusion that low-fat diets actually do not reduce overall fat levels - were indications vindicating the claims of those who champion the health benefits of olive oil. "Olive oil definitely raises the level of 'good cholesterol,' lowers 'bad cholesterol' and lowers triglycerides [the chemical form in which most fat is stored in the body]," says Shai. "This is significant because modern diets have doubled the amount of cholesterol in our bodies relative to what they were in ancient times." As a result of the study's conclusions, Shai's recommendations are for a combination of reduced carbohydrates in diets along with generous consumption of olive oil. Extract of an article in Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.