Grove concern: Trump tariffs take toll on Spanish olive growers

US import duties are having a profound effect on a Spanish market worth £50m last year

The scratchy song of the cicadas loops through the olive groves, growing louder as the sun climbs through a hazy August sky. “They’re telling us to get into the shade,” says Juan de Dios Segura. “It’s going to get hotter.”

Not only has the first heatwave of the summer hit, but the farmer and agricultural engineer is also grappling with a rabbit insurgency whose scale is apparent from the holes in the orange earth and the raptors hovering in the air above.

Segura’s mind, however, is as much on decisions in Washington DC as the day-to-day demands of his 100-hectare (247-acre) farm in central Andalucía.

Like many people in and around the town of La Roda de Andalucía, Segura, 60, makes his living from olives and he is worried about the effect of US tariffs on imports of the fruit from Spain.

Temporary tariffs were imposed last year and the US International Trade Commission has subsequently determined that the American olive industry is being “materially injured” by imports of olives that are subsidised by the Spanish government and sold at “less than fair value”.

The anti-subsidy and anti-dumping duties cover Spanish olives of all colours, shapes and sizes, pitted or non-pitted, whole, broken, wedged, sliced or minced, and are already having a profound effect on Spanish exports to the US, which were worth £50.3m last year.

According to Spain’s Association of Table Olive Producers and Exporters (Asemesa), exports of black olives to the US fell 42.4% in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2017, from 6.9m kg to 4m.

At the beginning of July, 1,000 people protested outside the US consulate in Seville. Agro Sevilla, the world’s largest producer, packer and exporter of olives, has cut back contracts to temporary workers as production falls. The US market accounts for one-quarter of its total exports.

Segura is luckier than some of his fellow growers, as only one-sixth of his 16,000 olive trees are given over to table olives, while the vast majority of his fruit goes into olive oil. Even so, he expects to feel the pinch over the next couple of months.

“You can get by and tighten your belt, but I’m going to need to save money because I’m not getting it from the table olives,” he says, adding that he is profoundly sceptical about the US government’s motivations.

“Can three Spanish provinces really be doing as much harm to an important country like the US as Trump claims? It’s as clear as day that American producers have agreed something with Trump.”

Juan de Dios Segura in his olive groves
Grower Juan de Dios Segura: ‘Can three Spanish provinces really be doing as much harm as Trump claims?’ Photograph: Sam Jones/Guardian

Asemesa estimates that the Spanish olive industry employs 8,000 people directly and thousands more indirectly, and provides 6m days of work each year in the fields.

“It’s a very important industry and is very much based in Andalucía and Extremadura, where there are no alternatives to growing olives,” says the association’s general secretary, Antonio de Mora. “Over the coming months, we’re practically going to lose the entire [US] market.”

He says the tariffs are about far more than olives and could threaten the EU’s common agricultural policy.

“The European commission needs to defend the subsidy model. If they don’t stick up for us, all European products that receive subsidies will be at risk,” says De Mora.

“A lot of jobs will be lost in Andalucía, but if the EU doesn’t defend us and lets the US call the CAP into question, then that will be the big problem.”

The Spanish government says it is working on ways to promote olives to other countries and to increase European consumption, while the European commission says it will continue defending EU olive growers and could yet bring the issue before the World Trade Organization.

“We will now first and foremost pursue the good dialogue we are having with our US counterparts on all matters of trade,” says a commission spokeswoman. “We of course reserve the right to take any measures that may be necessary, if ever this is needed.”

Segura knows that farmers tend to be professional worriers, with one eye perpetually on the heavens. But he fears that without swift action from Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the commission, the bright green olives ripening on his many trees could be the first casualties of a long and bitter trade war.

“If this can happen to table olives, it can happen to Spanish olive oil, to French cheese and wine – both of which are pretty important. I’m defending my land and my region,” he says.

“Right now it’s here and Juncker and everyone else at the European commission need to be responding and negotiating a bit more strongly.”


Sam Jones in La Roda de Andalucía

The GuardianTramp

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