Middle Eastern farmers bearing the brunt of plunging olive oil prices


The price for olive oil has dropped to its lowest level in a decade and farmers in the Middle East are bearing the brunt as Spain and Italy dump their government-subsidized stocks at below cost.

“The international market prices are going below sustainable levels,” Nasser Abu Farha, the director of Canaan Fair Trade that works with some 1,500 Palestinian farmers, told The Media Line.

The price of olive oil fell to about $2,920 per ton this month, about half of the peak price of $5,850 in 2006, according to IMF data. While the plunging olive oil prices are hitting the ailing economies of Spain, Italy and Greece, the world’s largest producers of olive oil, they are ricocheting across the Levant, too.

“There is a great deal of consolidation of the olive oil market in Spain and Italy so that the bulk of the olive oil industry is controlled by very few hands,” Abu Farha said. “These giant companies pool most of the Mediterranean olive oil and this gives them a lot of leverage on the price.”

Adi Naali, olive oil division manager of Israel’s Plant Council, said that the dumping was threatening to destroy the local olive industry.

“There is a catastrophic flood of cheap oil from Europe which is threatening the future of the olive famers in Israel,” Naali told The Media Line. “A farmer can sustain a loss for a year or so, but over time they can’t and we fear they will start uprooting their groves.”

About 95% of the world’s olive trees are in the Mediterranean region. Olive oil is so well liked and is such an integral part of the cuisine that according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Mediterranean basin countries also account for 77% of the world’s consumption.

But elsewhere around the world, olive oil consumption has dramatically risen over the past decade – largely due to the popularity of the “Mediterranean diet.” World olive oil consumption reached 2.98 million tons last year, a 3.7 % increase from 2009.

Olive oil producers have also started focusing their exports on non-traditional markets, particularly China, India and Japan.  China increased its import of olive oil by 62% in 2011, but most of the imports came from European countries.

“There was the expectation that every Chinaman would start drinking a spoon of olive oil a day, and the Indians too. That’s a lot of oil, and it is happening, but at a lower pace than expected,” Na’ali said.

The Europeans are now overstocked with olive oil and are trying to clear out their stocks by lowering prices.

“It’s harming us greatly,” Ayala Noymeir, who owns a mill producing organic olive oil in northern Israel, told The Media Line. “The major food chains [in Israel] are importing cheap oil from abroad and are selling it at rock bottom prices. They’re forcing us to get rid of our stocks at below cost.”

Noymeir said that the Europeans were able to dump their products cheaply because they were buffered by a subsidy from the European Union. Israeli customs aimed at protecting local farmers were not high enough to prevent the market from being flooded by the cheap oils from abroad.

“The problem is that when a housewife comes to the supermarket and compares prices, they are inclined to take the lower one, even if it’s lesser quality,” said Micha Noymeir, head of the family business of Rish Lekish, an organic olive mill in Tzippori.

But Abu Farha of Canaan Fair Trade said he believes there was room for prosperity in the olive oil specialty markets. They work with 1,500 Palestinian farmers from over 40 villages in the northern West Bank to produce olive oil, herbs and tahini. They supply major international retailers including Whole Foods in the U.S. and Sainsbury in Britain.

“The farmers who are escaping the impact of this are farmers who producing connoisseur-type specialty oils, like the farmers that we are working with, or farmers who are organized into fair trade and organic production.”

“We give the farmer a sustainable minimum regardless of the fluctuating of market prices. We give them a safety net of a minimum sustainable price, but we sell to like-minded companies in the West in Europe and North America who are willing to pay a premium on the olive oil prices when market prices are going low,” he said.

He said that olive oil production is a $200 million business in the Palestinian Authority and that it supports some 200,000 families. He said a lot of farmers who are outside their network were suffering since they have been sitting on their supplies waiting for the price to go up and a new harvest season was fast approaching.

“I see the price is going to stay low for the next couple of years, but one thing we are happy about is that we are able to sustain the $6 per-liter for our farmers at the time that it is below $3 in the market place,” Abu Farha said.

In Israel, efforts are underway to increase consumption in order to boost sales. According to the Plants Council, annual Israeli olive oil consumption is about two kilos per capita, substantially less than the 24 kilos the average Greek consumes annually.

“There was a sense that competition would be good and bring cheaper prices for the consumer but what is happening is that they are forcing the local olive farmer out of business and after that happens the importers will raise the prices,” Na’ali said.

“The Europeans are dumping their stocks and the whole market is flooded which is putting people like the Noymeirs and other farmers on the kibbutzim and in the Arab villages out of business.”

The Plant Council recently issued a quality-control sticker for Israeli olive oil which they hope will bring public confidence to the locally-made, high-quality extra virgin oils and boost sales.

POLL: Most Americans would back US strike over Iran nuclear weapon


A majority of Americans would support U.S. military action against Iran if there were evidence that Tehran is building nuclear weapons, even if such action led to higher gasoline prices, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Tuesday.

The poll showed 56 percent of Americans would support U.S. military action against Iran if there were evidence of a nuclear weapon program. Thirty-nine percent of Americans opposed military strikes.

Asked whether they would back U.S. military action if it led to higher gasoline prices, 53 percent of Americans said they would, while 42 percent said they would not.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll also found that 62 percent of Americans would back Israel taking military action against Iran for the same reasons.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said all options are on the table in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, but he has encouraged Israel to give sanctions against Iran more time to have an effect.

Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.

Higher gasoline prices, which have risen in part due to tension in the Middle East, have put political pressure on Obama as he fights for re-election later this year.

The president, a Democrat, has also faced criticism from his potential Republican rivals for being too soft on Iran and not supportive enough of Israel.

The poll showed Republicans were more willing to support military action by the United States or Israel than Democrats. Seventy percent of Republicans would back U.S. action, while 46 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents said the same.

The breakdown was similar when respondents were asked to factor in gasoline prices or their support of an Israeli military move.

“What we’re seeing is kind of a general trend that we always see, that Republicans tend to be more hawkish than Democrats or independents,” said Ipsos pollster Cliff Young. “Historically Republicans have been much more security-centric.”

A potential conflict with Iran has cast a foreign policy shadow over the U.S. election, which is expected to be dominated by voter concerns over the domestic economy.

Obama accused Republican presidential candidates earlier this month of “beating the drums of war” while failing to consider the consequences.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, one of the top Republican presidential contenders, told the powerful pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC: “If Iran doesn’t get rid of nuclear facilities, we will tear them down ourselves.”

Despite Americans’ signs of tolerance of higher gasoline prices in the poll, Obama’s chances of getting re-elected are threatened by rising prices at the pump.

The poll was conducted from March 8-11 among 1,084 adults across the United States. It has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman

Eight (pricey) nights


Food prices squeeze Israel’s needy


TEL AVIV (JTA) – It’s mid-afternoon and Michael Dahan is buying food for his first meal of the day. With rising food prices compounding his already dire economic situation, it has become his habit to skip meals, he admits.

“What can I do?” the unemployed 49-year-old says with a shrug, holding the small carton of milk he has just bought at a grocery store in the rundown Shapira neighborhood of south Tel Aviv. “I hardly have anything to get by on once I’ve paid rent and utilities.”

A block away, on a sidewalk strewn with cigarette butts and plastic bags, Maria Arnov, 28, an immigrant from Latvia and mother of two, says food prices have changed the way she shops. Arnov goes to the store less often and cuts corners wherever she can, like buying cheaper frozen meat and not buying the type of rice her family favors because its price has doubled in the past three months.

Israel, like many parts of the world, has seen food staples such as meat, rice and vegetables rise significantly. Its poor, already struggling to make ends meet, have been hardest hit—along with the nonprofit groups that serve them.

Although it is rare for Israelis to go hungry, food insecurity is a growing problem in their nation as traditional social safety nets fall short and nearly a quarter of Israeli families find themselves subsisting on less nutritious diets than before.

Many of the nonprofit groups that deliver food to the needy say they have been reeling from the one-two punch of rising prices and a sinking dollar.

In Israel, groups that rely in large part on funds raised in the United States have been forced by the dollar’s plunge to cut back on services, sometimes reducing the number of families they serve by as much as 40 percent.

In Beersheva, the social assistance group Beit Moriah has had to reduce the number of food packages it delivers to families every month to 200, down from 500 last year.

At From the Heart, an organization in Rishon LeZion that runs a food distribution project called Lev Chesed, volunteers are overwhelmed by requests they cannot meet.

“We have several hundred people on our waiting lists, but it’s not financially possible to help them,” said Ronen Ziv, the director of the group, which provides food packages to 700 families per week. “We have no government assistance.”

With budgets becoming leaner, government officials for the first time are pushing to develop a policy to combat food insecurity. The first-ever interministerial report on the subject was completed recently, and legislation is pending in the Knesset for a new council on food security to be created to develop coordinated policies to tackle the problem.

The ministerial report, which is pending Cabinet approval, recommends increasing annual state funding for nutrition and food insecurity to $10 million to $15 million from the current $1 million.

“There needs to be an appropriate range of government responses, from funding food assistance programs, to reducing state Value Added Tax on staple foods, to ensuring that having basic foods is seen as a right for all Israelis,” said Batya Kallus, the director of the Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel.

The forum, which conducts research, engineered the establishment of Leket, Israel’s first national food bank.

Established last year, Leket is based on the model of U.S. community food banks. It attempts to coordinate and streamline the efforts of many nonprofit food agencies. In the past decade the number of such groups has grown to about 400, which collectively distribute some 20,000 tons of food per year.

“What we have been seeing in purchasing food to be donated is that people are paying a huge range of prices, from rock bottom to retail,” Kallus said. “We have tried to make sense of that by creating a central purchasing division where organizations can come to Leket and we offer them a wide basket of foods they can purchase that we offer at the lowest possible prices.”

In a 2003 study on food insecurity in Israel commissioned by Leket from the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, researchers found that some 22 percent of Israelis are unable to provide for their basic nutritional needs on a daily basis.

A father of eight in Jerusalem whose family has slipped into poverty after emigrating from the United States many years ago says he lives with food insecurity every day.

“When there is food we are happy, when there isn’t we are not,” said the man, who asked not to be identified. “It’s not a matter of decision-making. When there’s just no money, there is no food.”

He says there are days when the family goes without food.

Ido Nachum, a spokesman for Israel’s welfare ministry, says he hopes the interministerial report’s recommendations will be adopted, including increased state investment and oversight of nonprofits, the establishment of the national council on food insecurity, expanding a hot lunch program for schoolchildren and ensuring government subsidies for those who cannot afford to feed their families adequately.

Far from the corridors of national decision-making, Dahan, the unemployed man in south Tel Aviv, shuffles away with his small bag of provisions, hoping for better days.

Israel Real Estate Sales to Foreign Buyers on the Rise


Despite the vast influx of French immigrants and tourists who are buying up apartments in many parts of Israel, most notably in Netanya and Jerusalem, Americans are still in the forefront when it comes to big money properties.

There has been a tremendous growth in the foreign real estate market, according to Stuart Hershkowitz, deputy general manager and head of the international division of the Bank of Jerusalem.

“The main thrust of the Americans is on more expensive apartments,” Hershkowitz said.

Luxury market sales have shot up by 120 percent over the past 18 months, he said. “If we saw a $1 million deal once a month, we now see a $1 million deal once a week.”

Americans seeking to buy in Jerusalem prefer the neighborhoods of Talbiyeh, Rehavia, Katamon, Baka and Sha’arei Hessed, and are willing to pay up to $1million for apartments of less than 100 square meters, Hershkowitz said. Recently they have discovered Nahlaot, he added, and many people are now buying their holiday homes in this more colorful part of Jerusalem.

After the Americans, the most serious foreign buyers of real estate in Jerusalem are the British, followed by the French.

Some of the apartments are purchased as investments, Hershkowitz said, but 70 percent of buyers don’t rent out their apartments even if they come to Israel only once or twice a year. “They want their own place and they want it empty,” he said.

Hershkowitz recalled that four years ago, at the height of the intifada, few people were coming to Israel.

“Now the hotels are all full,” he said. In 2005, NIS 100 million was being spent in transactions by foreign investors per month, compared with NIS 200 million for the whole of 2000. “Whole communities are interested in buying property in Israel.”

Throughout the intifada, real estate prices either dropped or remained constant, said Hershkowitz, who envisaged that prices will now move into an upward spiral.

Former Israeli ambassador to Washington Zalman Shoval, who was one of the founders of the Bank of Jerusalem and is currently co-chairman of the First American Israel Real Estate Fund, had been to America a few days earlier in his capacity as a member of the international advisory board of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations. Anyone who listens to American economists, Shoval said, might think that America is on the verge of bankruptcy. Certainly if one looked at the deficit in the U.S. balance of payments, there is room for worry, he remarked.

On the other hand, he said, there has been an impressive improvement in Israel’s economic situation. The deficit in the budget stands at NIS 2.9 billion compared to NIS 10.6 billion in the previous year; the gross domestic product per capita has expanded by 7.5 percent, and 180,000 new jobs have been made available.

In Shoval’s perception, this positive trend will continue, but could be hampered by the fact that Israel is in an election year. This could have a reverse effect on economic gains if the political leadership gives in to populist demands, he said.

 

Wake Up and Smell the Fish


For UCLA geography professor Jared Diamond, the fall of a great civilization can come down to fish.

“Fish prices have tripled; fish form a significant part of our diet,” Diamond told The Journal. “At the rate we’re going, most of the world’s major fisheries will be gone within a decade.”

He doesn’t expect Los Angelenos to obsess about it. “Fish don’t focus the attention the way a single earthquake does,” he said.

But Diamond knows what he’s talking about. He’s the author of the best-selling nonfiction book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” (Viking, 2004). His book is the inspiration for a special exhibit at the L.A. County Natural History Museum. Diamond will talk about his book and his ideas on Jan. 10 at a Writers Bloc Presents lecture at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Diamond, who received a 1985 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction with his earlier book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” (W. W. Norton & Company). The scope of Diamond’s research spans not only geography, but also ornithology, physiology and environmental history.

In the earlier book, Diamond examined how and why Western civilizations developed the technologies and immunities that allowed them to dominate much of the world. “Collapse” looks at the flip side: What caused some of the great civilizations to collapse into ruin and what can people today learn from their fates?

Some of what happens could come down to fish, Diamond said, or to other somewhat overlooked factors. Diamond expects a future massive fish decline to be a global version of the New Orleans levees breaking during Hurricane Katrina. A world without fish, he said, will result in “countries collapsing…. A substantial fraction of the world’s people rely on fish for protein.”

The Cambridge-educated Diamond, who is Jewish, said he has not found evidence that Jews, Judaism or any other major religion played a dominant role in why a civilization ended.

“I have not noticed that one particular religion is more prone or less prone to collapse,” he said.

Nor does he list the modern scourge of terrorism among crucial factors — at least it doesn’t rank nearly in importance with the supply of fish. “People don’t get excited about the gradual disappearance of fish,” he said, “until 2 billion people start sending out terrorists because they’re starving.”

Jared Diamond will discuss “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” at Writers Bloc Presents on Tuesday, Jan. 10, at 7:30 p.m. at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 855-0005.

Center Construction Moves Ahead Despite Shortfall


Though Irvine’s Samueli Jewish Campus is $2 million short of $20 million required to finish a community building, the project’s supporters are moving ahead to avoid the potential costs of delay.

Permits for the 123,000-square-foot building adjacent to Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School were issued in March.

"We’re moving ahead as originally scheduled," said Ralph Stern, of Tustin, who is leading fundraising. In a communitywide appeal in May 2002, he promised a fiscally conservative stance: construction would start when financial goals were met.

"If it weren’t for potentially inflationary pressure, we wouldn’t have started," he said last month.

Waiting for the till to fill would incur extra costs from disbanding the building’s construction team, an expected hike in steel prices and bid escalation due to a predicted surge of postwar construction, Stern said. Known costs alone amounted to $500,000, said Irving M. Chase, of Irvine, a member of the capital campaign committee.

"This is one way to protect the bids we had," Stern said.

Adequate funds have been pledged for the $6.5 million first phase, which includes grading, utilities, a foundation and steel-support structure. Stern hopes to raise the remainder by July, as the initial construction nears completion.

An anonymous donor and Broadcom Corp. co-founder Henry Samueli provided two-thirds of the project’s total $60 million cost. Jewish agencies now in Costa Mesa anticipate relocating next spring.

Ticket prices


Ticket prices are for the full series, including Rosh Hashanah evening and morning, Yom Kippur evening, and all day on Yom Kippur. Many synagogues offer tickets for single services, and many will nego-tiate. And remember, whatever you pay for holiday tickets is a tax-deductible charitable contribution.

$5-$50

  • Arbeter Ring/Workmen’s Circle

  • Temple Beth Israel

  • Aish Los Angeles

  • Sholem Community (Kol Nidre)

$51-$100

  • Temple Beth Emet

  • B’nai Ami Synagogue

  • B’nai Tikvah Congregation

  • Etz Jacob Congregation

$101-150

  • Jewish Learning Exchange ($50 children)

  • B’nai David-Judea

  • Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue

  • Cong. N’vay Shalom

  • Cong. Or Ami ($25 children)

  • Rodeph Shalom

$151-$200

  • Beth Chayim Chadashim

  • Temple Beth Hillel ($100 seniors, $40 students)

  • Beth Shir Shalom

  • Cong. Kol Ami

  • Leo Baeck Temple

  • Makom Ohr Shalom

  • Temple Menorah

  • Mishkon Tephilo

  • Sha’arei Am

  • UCLA Hillel (other than UCLA students)

$201-up

  • Adat Shalom ($140 for people under 25)

  • Temple Beth Am (less for alternative BAIT Tefillah service)

  • Cong. Beth Ohr

  • B’nai Horin

  • Temple Emanuel

  • Temple Isaiah (seniors $150)

  • Kehillat Israel

  • Stephen S. Wise Temple ($50 membership ages 21-32)

Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes does not sell tickets to nonmembers but offers a three-month membership.

Free services and programs

  • All holiday services at Southwest Temple Beth Torah in Gardena are free and open to the public.

  • Leo Baeck Temple offers a free service for families with very young children at 2 p.m. on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, and a Rosh Hashanah “family program” with music, art and drama activities at 10 a.m. on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

  • Cong. Or Ami offers free family services at 2 p.m. on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur.

Many synagogues that hold services on the second day of Rosh Hashanah (most do, except for some Reform temples) do not require tickets. Similarly, many congregations do not require tickets for Yom Kippur services late in the day, following an after-noon break. Call around to locate temples offering these open services.

Chabad offers free holiday services all over Southern California; see synagogue listings for West Coast headquarters and specific congregations. Also, the Chai Center will hold free services near LAX.

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