Tuesday, September 28, 2004

ethical oil consumption

Olive oil is the backbone of the Palestinian agricultural economy.

Since the start of the 2000 Intifada farmers have risked their lives in order to pick their olives, and Israeli military incursions into the occupied territories have included the deliberate destruction of half a million olive trees in order to starve Palestinians of their livelihood and clear land for more illegal settlements.

Israeli curfews mean harvesting is hampered, and rerouting of water for the illegal settlements takes away vital irrigation. The new Israeli wall is separating people from the land they farm.

A serious proportion of what does get produced goes bad before it's sold, as good storage facilites and cheap transport are scarce.

But now there's a direct link set up for people in the UK to buy this high quality, first cold-pressing extra virgin olive oil.

A company called Zaytoun has been established to let us give practical solidarity to Palestinian people and allow them to live, as they have for thousands of years, by trading in olive oil grown on their land.

It's organically grown (although it isn't labelled as organic - it takes several years for land to be organically used before the produce can be called organic. Many of the Zaytoun olive groves are still in this transition period, and those that are organic have yet to have official certification).

Not only is it by far the most ethical choice, but it's a lot healthier too. The phrase 'extra-virgin' is rapidly becoming meaningless. The test for whether an oil is extra-virgin, virgin, corrente or lampante is simply a test of acidity. As chemical means now exist to alter the acidity, low-grade industrially produced oil, heated and reheated and substantially less healthy, can be sold as extra-virgin.

Italy still corners the market, but nowadays it's reputation without substance. They have the two most popular brands, Filippo Berio and Bertolli, neither of which are what they appear to be. Despite the large letters on the label saying 'imported from Italy', they actually mean 'oil from Tunisia, Greece, Spain and elsewhere transported in tankers to our Italian factory for industrial processing and bottling'. Italy doesn't actually even grow enough olives to supply domestic demand and is one of the world's biggest importers of olive oil (in no small part due to the relabelling-export scam).

So, 'first cold-pressing extra virgin' is the phrase to look for; it means the oil has had the minimum of processing and retains the maximum nutritional value. Zaytoun is one such oil. It's also the only fair-trade olive oil available in the UK, and the first fair-trade product marketed out of Israel.

It's £5 for a 500ml bottle (cheaper for very large orders), the same price as other organic olive oil costs.

The catch is that there's a minimum order of 24 bottles. But then again, it's oil, it's hardly going to go off in a hurry. And if you and five mates club together, that's only four bottles each; or else ask your health food store to stock it.

The plan has been a bigger success than expected, and has recently caught the eye of the media in the UK and the Middle East.

If you're outside the UK, plans are afoot to stock it in Spain, Belgium, Japan and the USA.

Whilst some international activists are risking their lives to help with this year's olive harvest, you can give direct and practical simply by your choice of salad dressing.

Order details are on the Zaytoun site.

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