Extra virgin export

Greece is primarily what economists call a domestic demand-oriented economy, meaning most products are geared to the domestic market. It has the lowest ratio of exports to gross domestic products, or GDP, in the European Union, just 27% (compared to the EU-wide average of 45%). Most experts think Greece should be selling more abroad — much more.

And olive oil, given the high quality of Greek production, should have a big role to play. Keep in mind that about three-quarters of all the oil produced in Greece is extra virgin — unlike Italy, for instance, where extra virgin accounts for a little less than half, or Spain where it is barely a third of total oil production.

Most of this extra virgin comes from modest family farms, the backbone of the country’s agricultural economy. But such small enterprises find it difficult to compete on the international scale, lacking both investment capital and marketing skills necessary to play the game.

The statistics surrounding Greek olive oil production are amazing. First off, Greeks consume more olive oil per capita, by far, than any other people in the world — 18 kilos or nearly 40 pounds per person annually, according to the European Commission. (By comparison, Italians consume a little less than 11 kilos — about 24 pounds — each, while the U.S. is still less than a measly kilo).

A third of all Greek oil is exported to other countries, mostly extra virgin, mostly to the European Union. But 90% of that is sold in bulk to Italian and Spanish packagers who either bottle and rebrand the oil or blend it with more expensive home-produced oil to make the kind of cheap, indifferent oils found in supermarkets all over the world. Only 10% of this remarkable product is exported in branded bottles.

For consumers aware of the price commanded by a bottle of premium quality Italian, French or Spanish oil, or for anyone who has experienced the quality of top Greek olive oils, there is something inherently odd about such high-quality extra virgin oil being sold off as a cheap bulk commodity. True, no one is forcing Greek producers to sell in bulk, but the olive oil market, like most agricultural niche markets around the world, is deeply conservative. The Italian market for Greek oil has always been there, going back probably several millennia, so why change things now? In short, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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