Tunisian Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Organic Farming and Quality Goes Hand in Hand

Learn about why Tunisia is the world’s biggest exporter of organic olive oil.

Written BY

Ylenia Granitto

Olive Oil taster and writer. Italy correspondent @oliveoiltimes . Human Rights advocate.

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August 21, 2022

Tunisia is one of the world’s leading producers of olive oil and is making a name for itself in terms of quality. With almost 5 million acres of olive groves and 82 million olive trees, more than 30 percent of its agricultural land is dedicated to olive farming, which plays a fundamental role in the economic and social development of the country.

Olive oil in Tunisia dates back to 500 BC

To date, approximately one-fifth of the country's agricultural workforce is engaged in the olive sector, which for ages has represented a source of income for a large part of the population. The olive tree is truly at the heart of the culture and traditions of Tunisian people, and the origins of their relationship with this wondrous belongs to Tunisia's rich history. 

It is difficult to say with certainty when the plant reached the North-African land. It is believed it was brought by the Phoenicians around 500 BC. There's evidence that Phoenicians already cultivated olive oil, and the Carthaginians contributed to spreading it throughout the region. Located in the village of Echraf, on the peninsula of Cap Bon, the oldest known olive tree in Tunisia and one of the most ancient in the world is now 2,500 years old. In the second century, Romans settled, improving crop irrigation with new hydraulic works.

Organic farming is part of a larger economic strategy

Encouraged by the climate, over the last decades, Tunisian olive growers have extensively developed organic farming. The weather is characterized by:

  • mild winters
  • hot and dry summers on the coasts
  • very arid inland areas

These climatic conditions promote the development of the local olive varieties with a reduced risk of pests. Such conditions are ideal for orchard management and sustainability. 

This has made Tunisia the first olive oil producing country by area dedicated to organic agriculture. 70% of organic farming land is dedicated to olive groves amounting to over 630,000 acres out of a total of 929,000 acres.  Italy and Spain follow with 580,000 acres and 482,000 acres respectively. Therefore it is not surprising that Tunisia is currently the world’s biggest exporter of organic olive oil.

Acknowledging the exponential advancement of the industry, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, launched a training program to enhance the country’s organic olive sector to be achieved by 2030. The experts reported that in the last two decades, olive oil production in Tunisia has undergone significant changes in cultivation practices and milling techniques, thanks to technological innovations. For instance, two-thirds of the country’s milling facilities have been upgraded with the latest technology, resulting in enhanced production and more efficient use of resources, core elements in the current policies to promote sustainability.

2030 is the target date for implementing a national strategic plan that aims to create additional certified organic lands. The Tunisian Ministry of Agriculture introduced the project, which will see the establishment of “organic territories”, along the lines of the European Bio-Districts, which include fair and sustainable ‘Bio-Tourism’ circuits. The aim is the development of organic agriculture pilot areas, targeting the governorates of Bizerte, Siliana, Kasserine, Tozeur, and Nabeul, and involving other components of the local economy in a view to enhance the socio-cultural specificities and preserve the natural resources of the territory.  The General Directorate of Organic Agriculture has stated that the core objectives are:

  •  promoting healthy habits
  •  protecting the environment
  •  fostering equity throughout the value chain
  •  improving economic profitability. 

The final purpose is to make Tunisian organic agriculture a model at a national and international level. 

This act seems to reward the long-standing effort of the country’s farmers to implement the principles of this farming method, which started back in the 1980s. The government’s adoption of the law n. 99/30 on April 5th 1999, made Tunisia the first African country to implement a legislative framework on organic agriculture – the regulation sets out internationally recognized production standards.

Organic Tunisian Olive oil rewarded at international competitions

Special recognition in terms of quality comes from the international competitions, which annually reward the best extra virgin olive oils globally. As their winner list represents an authoritative guide to world excellence, the ever-growing presence of monovarietal and blends from Tunisia clearly indicate the rising professionalism and skill of the country’s producers, who are emerging as key players in the global stage. As you might have guessed, most of the awarded products come from organic farming.

Tunisian Olive Varieties 

Tunisian olive farmers can draw from a rich reservoir of olive biodiversity represented by over 200 varieties, whose germplasm is conserved at the National Gene Bank of Tunisia and the Boughrara Collection of Olive Tree Institute in Sfax.

The national output of extra virgin olive oil actually sees the predominance of two varieties: Chetoui, which is more widespread in the northern regions. The second main variety, Chemlali, accounts for most of the production, grown mainly in the center and southern part of the country.

Chetoui extra virgin olive oils combine a predominant scent of cut grass with notes of rose and green tea, and fruity hints. Buoyant sensations of bitterness and pungency usually back up its medium fruitiness. Chemlali is often characterized by spicy and floral notes combined with hints of green almond, radish, lettuce, nut, and pine nut. Its medium fruitiness plays in harmony with gentler bitter and pungent sensations. 

Among the wide olive varieties, Sayali, Meski, and Jerboui are found mainly in the north of the country, while Oueslati is typical of the central areas. Zalmati, Zarrazi, and Tounsi are primarily grown in the southern part of Tunisia. The development of the sector and the progress of research into plant genetics are creating a rising interest among scholars and tasters in the characterization and assessment of the extra virgin olive oils obtained by minor varieties. Some were found to have valuable nutritional and organoleptic properties, and many are yet to be discovered.

Bottom line

Tunisia is the world’s biggest exporter of organic olive oil for a reason. Its mild winters and hot and dry summers allow the non usage of pesticides.  Additionally the government has made it an economic strategic to promote Tunisia's competitive advantage. Time to taste a high-quality organic extra virgin olive oil from Tunisia? Go to our product section and taste yours today!

Further Reading
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Your Guide to Tunisian Olive Oil
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