Tunisia is counting heavily on this year’s olive harvest to reduce its growing trade deficit by exporting most of its oil products. For the first time in five years, olive oil production is expected to reach a record level.
The olive oil production sector is one of Tunisia’s most vital. The sector has been affected in recent years by drought and experienced a reduction in production, which aggravated Tunisia’s economic woes.
With the prospects of a good harvest, agriculture officials and experts said they hope the country will gradually pull out of the danger zone by reducing its trade deficit, since most olive oil products are exported.
Chokri Bayoudh, director-general of the Tunisian National Oil Office, said the olive harvesting season, expected to start in November, is “promising and the crop could exceed the usual rates.”
Sector experts predicted that this season’s olive oil production will be double of the previous season’s, which was the worst on record. Official data stated that last season’s production was 140,000 tonnes of oil, of which 117,000 were exported, generating $551 million in revenue.
The Tunisian Ministry of Agriculture announced it expects olive oil production this season to reach a record of about 350,000 tonnes, exceeding the record set in 2015 of about 340,000 tonnes. Such levels would help Tunisia reduce its trade deficit, which has risen since the beginning of this year, despite government measures over the past two years.
Data from the National Institute of Statistics stated that Tunisia’s trade deficit rose during the first seven months of the year to nearly $4 billion, compared to $3.5 billion the same period last year. In a note on foreign trade at current prices published on its website, the institute explained the rise in the deficit by a surge of 13.2% in exports and 12.9% in imports.
Local agricultural circles said that if Tunisian olive oil production reaches the expected level, it would make the country second only to Spain in olive oil exports.
Experts confirmed that the expected increase in Tunisian oil exports is because of a smaller olive harvest in Spain, the world’s largest producer, as well as to the penetration by Tunisian exporters into new markets, especially Canada, the United States, China, Japan and India.
For the past decade, Tunisia has averaged annual olive oil exports of at least 145,000 tonnes a year, representing about 80% of the domestic production, most of which goes to European markets. To boost production, Tunisia is planting about 10 million olive seedlings by 2020 to boost its standing as one of the world’s largest olive oil producers.
Although the country is facing a severe shortage of water for irrigation or human consumption, which is forcing it to reconsider its agricultural map, there seems to be a strong determination to invest in the sector.
Samir Bettaieb, Tunisian minister of Agriculture, Water Resources and Fishing, said this season’s olive harvest “is going to be a record-breaking one and we expect to reach the top rank or the second place worldwide in the production and export of olive oil.”
Over the past decade, lack of rain and climate change severely affected olive oil production in Tunisia. Official figures state that Tunisia’s water resources total 4.8 billion cubic metres, with 35 dams with a capacity of 2.7 billion cubic metres.
Some say that Tunisia can achieve food self-sufficiency if the government changes its outlook on the agricultural sector, which remains marginalised and is considered complementary to trade. The Ministry of Agriculture said the total area of potentially arable land in Tunisia is 5 million hectares, of which only 24% is being cultivated.
Experts also warned of accelerating climate change affecting Tunisians’ food security unless urgent coping policies are adopted. Water scarcity in the last three years revealed a particularly difficult reality for Tunisian farmers, exacerbating the country’s economic crisis caused by the decline of many strategic productive sectors.
In the face of the rising threats of declining water reserves, the Tunisian Agriculture and Fisheries Union repeatedly expressed concern about the negative effects of declining irrigation water supplies on agriculture, which consumes about 80% of the country’s water needs.
In May, Tunisia received support from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation to strengthen its efforts to develop the strategic sector with a view to shifting to clean crop production.