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The Olive Tree Doesn't Lie

DRAGUIGNAN, France
"Watching my gnarled old Mediterranean [olive] tree season by season, I see the bad news fast getting worse. Our future food supply is at risk, olives and most everything else besides. Some insist that scientific ingenuity will provide. Agribusiness touts miracle seeds and new techniques. Others find comfort in broad numbers, yearly precipitation figures and mean temperatures that have yet to plummet. Yet most food we eat relies on rainfall cycles and defined seasons. The point is not how much rain falls but when. And annual temperature averages hide a new reality: the patterns of hot and cold are changing. My own farm typifies what I now see from Kalamata to California...Late each winter, the trees are cut back hard. In spring, buds cover the new wood. By fall, branches droop under the weight of green fruit. As they turn purplish black in December, the olives are pressed into oil to remember. It is December now, and my trees should be heavy with olives. But they're not. Like last year, rains fell at the wrong time, too hard or too soft. When it mattered, there was no rain at all. A warming trend with freak cold snaps confuses plant metabolism and emboldens killer pests. Last January, my trees budded, convinced it was spring. Then it froze. In June, the Dacus fly bored into the fruit, causing it to drop off the tree. Many olive growers are somewhere between disbelief and denial... The Italian government predicts the olive crop for 2007 will be about 500,000 tons, 17 percent less than last year. Truffle news is likewise calamitous, because of drought, combined with shifts in the soil. Italy's beloved tartufi bianchi, those pungent white truffles, reached a record price in October of $7,500 a kilo. Black truffle season is starting in France, and bidding is headed skyward. At the Saturday market in Draguignan [France], farmers who know each of their turnips personally see the signs in their fruit trees, wheat fields and vegetable gardens. Crops ripen too early or not at all. One grower I respect saw his cherries bloom too early and die in a cold snap. Underground streams are tapped out by mid-summer. As it has routinely since 1988, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has sounded the alarm. Fortified with a Nobel Prize and alarming new evidence, it has dropped "ifs" and "buts." Some argue that a few seasons do not define a trend. But each morning, my trees tell me the hard truths."

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