Professor Gianfranco Vargas Flores was born in Tacna, the first olive growing region of Peru. A business administrator by profession, he began his professional work in the olive sector as a researcher at the Research Institute of the University of the Pacific (UP) within the Indian Studies Project (PEI) and at the Research Institute of the School of Tourism and Hospitality of the University of San Martin de Porres (USMP) in Lima, Peru. Currently, he is the founder and co-organizer of SUDOLIVA, an organization and think tank of olive professionals dedicated to the enhancement of the olive culture and the centennial South American olive tree. He is an international consultant for different institutions, unions, olive oil mills and olive producers in Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil. He is also a professor of olive oil at the Le Cordon Bleu Institute in Peru and at the Wine and Pisco Institute (Idvip) of the USMP. In 2015, he was recognized by the Peruvian Association of Gastronomy (APEGA) as the master of olive oil in QARAY (Mistura), and in 2018, the Regional Government of Tacna officially granted him the «Tacna Brand» for Peru and the world.

The scientific activities developed since his integration to the Indian Studies Project were particularly focused on the Feasibility Study: Diagnosis to declare the San Isidro Olive Forest as a Cultural Heritage of Peru and Humanity (UNESCO).» Likewise, he was a researcher of the School of Tourism and Hospitality of the USMP. Part of the activities he developed were the interdisciplinary study of «Olive Growing in Peru: American Cultural Heritage» and «The Culture of Fats in the Peruvian cuisine.» He is the author of 2 books that are set to be published this 2020, and is the author and co-author of various scientific publications, book chapters and is a columnist for magazines specialized in gastronomy and agriculture. He has participated as a panelist in congresses and seminars in Peru, Chile, Brazil and California (USA). He has been a judge in the international olive oil competitions: SUDOLIVA (Chile) and the BRAZIL International olive oil competition (iOOC).

What is the current role of the olive oil sector in Peru?

After the introduction of the first olive trees from Aljarafe that were imported into Viceroyalty Lima during the 1560s, Peruvian olive growing was directed particularly towards the processing of natural black olives (table olives popularly known in the country as «botija»), rather than oil production. In other words, the first conquistadors and their Creole sons were proud of the size and taste of the Peruvian olives they saw ripening naturally on their trees, which they macerated in ancient times in botijas made of clay. Likewise, for centuries a Hispanic dependence on olive growing continued, either through royal decrees issued by the Spanish crown to prevent the cultivation of the olive tree by the natives and the commercialization of Peruvian oil by the other territories in the Indies, or very probably, because of the cultural roots and the Creole olive pride that began to develop from the colony.

Initially, the olive tree was introduced into Peru to cover a growing and important ecclesiastical demand for lampante oils. However, both the reputation achieved by botija (perulera: Peruvian) olives, the policies of the crown and extrinsic factors – such as climate, water and soil – of the Pacific desert ecoregion, greatly favored the development of a new olive culture oriented in particular towards the processing of table olives, and with a reduced oil production. Thus, a new form of olive growing was born outside its native place (the Mediterranean) and was located in new latitudes close to the equator. That is to say, the enormous olive trees that I have dated with the USMP, the Polytechnic University of Madrid and the Santander Foundation, are living proof of an olive cultivation that has been growing steadily outside the Mediterranean strip for more than four and a half centuries, specifically on the central and southern coast of Peru, between 11° and 18° Southern latitude, as well as the new olive groves that have traditionally spread in the towns of: Lurin, Chilca, Huaura, Huaral, Huacho, and Barranca in the Lima region. Chincha, San Andrés, Paracas, Pisco in the Ica region. Bella Unión, Acarí, Yauca, Jaqui, Tambo, Chaparra, Atiquipa, Atico and Camaná in the Arequipa region. Ilo, Pacocha and the Algarrobal in Moquegua and in the Yarada, Magollo, los Palos and Esperanza in the Tacna region.

Despite the desertification of the area, there is a very high atmospheric humidity, coming from the marine fog originating in the South Pacific Cold Sea Ecoregion, which produces a slight sensation of cold that rarely goes below 11 °C. On the other hand, in the summer season, the sun shines more intensely and the temperature can reach more than 30 °C. This is an arid zone, with little rainfall and irrigation that depends directly on surface water from the inter-Andean rivers in the case of the valleys, and groundwater in the case of the hills and pampas, as it is irrigated with water from the underground aquifer of the almost 30,000 hectares of olive groves located on the pampas of La Yarada and Hospicio. The soils of this coastal strip of Peru are mostly of volcanic origin and geomorphologically identified by the USMP Research Institute as valley olive groves, pampas and lomas, each with unique soil and climate characteristics.

With the mentioned soil and climatic conditions of the area and the background of the centennial olive growing developed in Peru, the first olive groves of integrated olive production were installed during the last decade. They are oriented to an olive growing and olive oil production of excellence and the highest quality in the valley that gives origin to the name of the national distillate: Pisco. Both companies, Oasis Olives of Australian capital and Oliperu of Peruvian capital (which was located in the pampas of Villacuri), invested millions generating innovation and development for the Peruvian olive growing sector on their own account, by implanting new cultivars (of Picual, barnea, coratina, koroneiki, among others) in an intensive way (around 555 olive trees per hectare) and of mechanized harvesting that allows them to leave the harvested olives between six and eight hours in their mill. These modern oil mills with state-of-the-art technology have mills with a capacity to crush more than 3500 kilos of olives per hour. For example, the mill at Oasis Olives crushes around 10,000 kilos of olives per hour, which allows it to extract a high-end EVOO from healthy, fresh olives from its own harvest. This is not affordable when olives are bought from different types of growers, as is done in Tacna, since both the phytosanitary controls and the health of the fruit itself are not uniform, and depend on third parties and not directly on the grower.

For the year 2019, the Agrarian News Agency indicated that Peru produces around 133,700 tons of olives annually. Of this total production, 75% is for table olives, while the remaining 25% (33,425 tons) is for olive oil. Taking into account the 33,425 kilos of olives destined for olive production and an average of 5 kilos of olives per kilo of oil, it was estimated that about 6680 tons of olive oil were obtained in the country. At this moment in Peru we are still in harvest or raima. For the present year, total production is expected to be 50% less compared to 2019.  The big difference in the olive production that can be seen between both years could be attributed to the productive alternation of the olive tree or vine caused by the cultural practice (labor) of harvesting the olives late (to reach the natural maturation previously mentioned) to process their «natural black olives» or «Botija olives» (called «Alfonso» in the United States). At the same time, it is due to many olive growers not harvesting their olive trees due to the low price of olives offered on the market and the surplus stock in their maceration cellars and oil mills.

Likewise, during decades the surpluses of the traditional olive production of Peru directed to the processing of the olive of table – of the Creole variety in particular – has allowed many olive growers from the south of Peru to process high quality oils, as well as virgin oils and lampantes. They mainly export them in bulk to large Spanish companies at the price of lampante, or in packaging or to later be refined in Spain. However, it should be noted that Peru imported a total of 1’278,058 kilos of olive oil (refined) in 2019 for the main companies specialized in canned fish (after mining the fishing sector is the most important in the country). To be able to refine all the lampante oils in Tacna or Lima that are exported mainly to Spain, or to be able to commercialize them directly to the Peruvian conserves is not possible because the norms of the International Olive Oil Council indicating that the index of the resulting Criolla variety are low, and they do not fulfill the requirements by the International Olive Oil Council. This is a pending issue that the Peruvian state must resolve.

What is the behavior of Peruvian consumers in the face of the pandemic like?

Although olive marketing in Peru has been one of the most important challenges for Peruvian producers during the pandemic, it has been considerably reduced in the HORECA channel (Hotels, Restaurants and Catering) because of COVID-19. And this is a sector where Peruvian cuisine and Peruvian restaurants are considered among the best in the world. However, in the retail sector an increase in the sale of olive oils and table olives can be observed, mainly within the traditional channel that includes the corner stores or small shops within the markets, as well as in the modern channel where the supermarket chains or specialized mini-markets (either gourmet or natural products) are commercializing their shelves with more olive oils than usual. Likewise, the Ministry of Agriculture of Peru, together with some municipalities have been implementing itinerant markets or agricultural fairs all over the country, where the olive production has been experiencing a new opportunity that has benefited its commercialization.

Another important challenge that the Peruvian olive sector has had in the mentioned commercialization of its production has been electronic commerce. Indeed, this has occurred in addition to the increase in e-commerce implemented previously by the supermarket chains. Since the beginning of this social isolation, an increase of virtual stores can easily be observed. This is particularly directed to the sale of food and health products, where olive oil is included to be sold to these neo-consumers online, which with the pandemic has become much more demanding with respect to the delivery system and the biosecurity protocols for the delivery or distribution of products. At the same time, in regards to this new commercial interaction online, I consider that it is very important to take the current situation into account in order to obtain more information about the consumption habits of the customers regarding olive oils and table olives.

What are the varieties of olive trees grown in Peru?   

95% of the Peruvian olive grove landscape is of the (Cv) Criolla or Sevillana variety from Peru.  The remaining 5% corresponds to the cultivars that are mostly used as pollinators of the mentioned variety Criolla, such as the empeltre or leccino, gordal or ascolana, moraiolo, pendolino, manzanilla/o, frantoio and arbequina varieties. Although in some Peruvian olive groves recently, monocultures of koroneiki, picual, coratina, cornicabra, hojiblanca, kalamata and farga have been implanted. It is worth mentioning that, according to the characterization of extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) of the Criollo variety that we have been carrying out with the company PIERALISI in the Americas, we have obtained a fat yield greater than 17%. This comes from the same maturity index (veraison) of the fruit of this cultivar. Likewise, the intensities of the fruitiness, bitterness and spiciness of the extracted EVOOs were different. They varied according to the soil and climatic conditions of the area. For example, the EVOOs of the Criollo cultivar obtained in the pampas of La Yarada and Hospicio, which is very close to the coast (Pacific Ocean) with sandy and silty-clay soils, obtained greater intensity in the fruit, which is characterized by its green banana descriptor. They are much more bitter and astringent, while the EVOOs that come from crops in sandy-loam soils of alluvial origin, such as those in the Sama valley in Tacna, are less intense in regards to fruitiness and bitterness.

 How could olive oil consumption increase in Peru?

To begin with, it is necessary to carry out a cultural promotion project of the product, given both to the consumer and to all the participants of the olive production chain. To this end, I believe that the first step is for Peru to become part of the International Olive Council, because both its regulations and its communication and culture strategies for olive oil and table olives are scientifically endorsed within a context of intergovernmental policies, which will solidly reinforce the spread and culture of both consumers and olive growers, processors, bottlers and marketers, among other participants in the Peruvian olive-growing chain.

Likewise, the role played by regional governments and the central government in promoting the country’s agricultural sector is very important. However, I believe that for key positions such as the promotion of products such as olive oil, they should hire specialists in the sector. Many times promotion is carried out only by designers and it is not possible to communicate what is necessary and on many occasions, it distorts the message. But if the IOC’s support and backing were available, this type of promotional error could be avoided by making it more effective.

An important strategy that we have applied in Peru and South America is the value of tangible and intangible heritage of the olive culture, since a sense of identity can be generated with these cultural roots in olive-growing communities. This attributes value to the cultivation and production of oil at the same time. At the same time, holding competitions for centenary olive trees and extra virgin olive oils in South America has allowed us to get closer to consumers and producers by sharing the best of their production and the stories that converge in their olive groves.

Gianfranco Vargas Flores