What we can learn from olives, chemistry, conflict and Cyprus

  • 06.09.2023
  • article
  • Arable and Horticulture
  • Cooking and Growing
  • David McKenzie

In a barren, former conflict zone in Cyprus, the olive tree, a global symbol of peace, is providing a potential blueprint for more successful, nutritious and sustainable food systems.

It’s a sparkling blue day, again. Anastasia Panteli, Head Agriculturalist at Atsas Organics, is on her hands and knees, head down, running her hands over the soil that encases the entangled network of roots at the base of an olive tree. She stands up, satisfied, and dusts the dirt off her hands. “They are keeping it well enough.”


“The moisture.”

It hasn’t rained in this part of Cyprus for at least four months. The scorching heat of summer has gone, the worst of the fires are over, but still, there’s a hot dryness in the air. On top of a hill in the near distance is a hut that marks the military checkpoint and start of the Turkish-occupied territory of North Cyprus; behind us is the UN security checkpoint and de facto border of the (predominantly Greek-speaking) Republic of Cyprus. We are in the middle of the buffer zone: a demilitarised area patrolled by the UN since the ceasefire in 1974. Given the presence of landmines, which weren’t safely cleared until 2011, this region was for a long while essentially off-limits, a no-man’s land. It is still not fully open, but some agricultural permits have been granted and Atsas has obtained one.

With landmines an ongoing threat in many parts of Cyprus, agriculture has only been allowed to return in pockets over the past decade or so.
With landmines an ongoing threat in many parts of Cyprus, agriculture has only been allowed to return in pockets over the past decade or so.


Around us is a deserted landscape of pale hills and scrubby bushes, speckled with occasional tufts of trees struggling to hold onto every scrap of chlorophyll-greenness that they can. The gridded block of spindly trees in which we are standing is clearly young – no more than 10 years old – and still looks like an add-on to this landscape, rather than part of it. It’s like a sticking plaster, stuck over a grazed elbow, with blots of skin still visible around its edges. This landscape doesn’t strike you immediately as a place where you could be growing the best crops in the world. But by some measures, that’s exactly what it is.

The healthiest olive oil

The crops here are olives – specifically, olives pressed for oil – and the measure we are talking about is the health and nutritional quality of olive oil. If this is judged by its phenolic compound (or polyphenol) quotient, as it often is, then Atsas leads the world in this regard.

Atsas Farm was set up here a decade ago. It was a project to try and produce olive oil in a region that had been deserted for half a century, with many families having been displaced on either side of the conflict. Atsas employed advanced organic and regenerative farming principles, in the hope of designing an agricultural ecosystem that is diverse, resilient and will last through time, ensuring it is sustainable for future generations.

In 2016, when the first trees started fruiting and were taken to be tested for qualitative analysis, Atsas were surprised to learn that their oil contained the highest-ever recorded levels of polyphenols, a group of naturally-occurring compounds abundant in many plants. The next year, having shifted even more focus towards encouraging high levels of phenolic compounds, they doubled their own world record.

Credit: Nicolas Netien Caption: Olive oil from Atsas Organics in Cyprus contains the highest levels of nutritious polyphenols ever recorded.
Olive oil from Atsas Organics in Cyprus contains the highest levels of nutritious polyphenols ever recorded.


Olive oil is the centrepiece of the famously healthy ‘Mediterranean diet’. Scientists in recent decades have identified that much of this is due to the presence of polyphenols, which often have strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. More importantly, olives naturally contain certain enzymes that, when pressed for oil, ‘unlock’ these polyphenols and make them bioavailable to us.

The most prevalent phenolic compounds in olive oil are oleuropein, oleocanthal and hydroxytyrosol. Oleuropein and oleocanthal, in particular, have routinely been shown to have immense health-giving qualities: from reduction of blood pressure and anti-cancer effects, to pain relief and staving off Alzheimer’s Disease, as well as being proven to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The European Union – whose member states account for around two-thirds of the world’s total olive oil production – use the concentration of phenolic compounds as a primary measure of whether a particular olive oil may be marketed and/or labelled with certain health claims: EU Regulation 432/2012 states that the level of polyphenols present needs to be at least 5mg per 20g (or 250mg per litre). The oil from Atsas routinely measures over 2000mg/L – and their highest ever is closer to 5000mg/L.


How did this happen?

“The good thing about planting organically in the buffer zone,” says Anastasia, “is that you are starting with a pure, uncontaminated soil.”

“Nothing has been degraded. Nothing has been tilled or cultivated here to bring the insects or the fungus, which pose the biggest threats to organic olive oil production. So, you have a clean start for building organic and sustainable systems.”

Much of Cyprus’s “Buffer Zone” has been off limits for nearly 50 years.


The soil structure helps with water retention and nutrient uptake for the trees, and the ecosystem beneath the ground has been allowed to go on, undisturbed, since the 1970s. This makes it much easier to start an organic system of production than trying to convert land that has been heavily cultivated, sown and/or pumped with chemicals for years or decades.

This is not the only factor behind Atsas’ success, though.

Into this neglected soil, Atsas have applied a highly sophisticated organic and regenerative farming system, focused on controlling as many variables as they can: from setting up innovative water-catchment areas and installing drip irrigation, to maintaining the carefully pruned ‘cup-shape’ of the trees, in order to allow equal light, oxygen and airflow, minimising the risk of fungal or insect infestation. Although the soil is not disturbed, adding green manure, beneficial microbes and mycorrhizae are among the approaches employed to help build soil health.

There’s also careful selection of olive varieties and control of harvest times. The three olive varieties Atsas grows – Kalamon, Koroneiki and Cypriot – are chosen carefully and staggered so as to pick, by hand, each one early in its ripening stage (when olives are at their greenest and levels of polyphenols are at their highest). They are then taken to Atsas’ high-tech mill within 30 minutes of being picked, minimising risk of oxidation (which deteriorates the olives’ nutritional benefits).

he Kalamon olive variety, also known as Kalamata, typically has higher levels of healthy, phenolic compounds than other types of olives.
The ‘Kalamon’ olive variety, also known as Kalamata, typically has higher levels of healthy, phenolic compounds than other types of olives.


That’s not to say there aren’t significant challenges – there are.

“To me,” says Panteli, “organic farming is like gambling: sometimes, you play by the rules and you win; other times, you play by the rules and you lose.” Dealing with the increasingly extreme weather changes throughout the seasons are times when you often “lose”.

Cyprus has had extremely little rain this summer, which is nothing new. There were also devastating wildfires and challenging heat waves that, again, came as little surprise to many here.

“The heat is no problem, the olives can handle it,” says Nicolas Netien, an environmental engineer and organic farming expert, who was one of the founders of Atsas Organics. “The problem now, though, is the change of patterns. Things are becoming less and less predictable or reliable, and so you need systems that are more adaptable and resilient.”

From one year to the next, it’s becoming harder and harder to predict what will happen. Winter rains not arriving and then snow coming in spring (when flowering should be taking place), followed immediately by intense heat announcing itself a month earlier than it usually does (and staying around twice as long), have had a straining effect on the olives this year.

Heavy winter rains also meant lots of undergrowth developed in the predominantly pine forests, which acted as kindling for summer fires – a problem that Netien says can be mitigated by more sophisticated agroforestry projects, using ancient oak and cedar species (rather than pyrophytic pine trees) interspersed with other species, controlled animal grazing and recreational human activities.

Netien is currently involved with various larger-scale, multi-party projects across Cyprus, aimed at pushing the island’s land management and food production systems towards a more sophisticated, sustainable direction.

“What we really need is a cultural change,” he says. “We need to put food production back at the centre of society, where it belongs. We have an outdated view on farming. We think it has to be difficult, but it doesn’t. We are not breaking our backs – it’s not the Middle Ages. We have technology we can use. We have modern systems.”

However, as in many other countries, young people in Cyprus are turning away from agriculture towards more attractive or prosperous careers in the city, while the older generations – who have traditionally cared for the trees and worked the land – move on.

“Fifty-one per cent of land in Cyprus is in ‘critical danger of desertification’ due primarily to man-made actions, according to the UN; and 80% of farm holdings are run by people aged over 65. So, we have a big demographic problem looming,” says Netien. “What really drives people like me insane though – literally – is that we already have the solutions: we know how we can do it, and we have the tools. We just need the willpower.“

There aren’t many job opportunities for young Cypriots, like Anastasia, in rural areas like this. Cultural and family traditions are disappearing as older generations pass on. The olive oil produced at Atsas is different from traditional Cypriot olive oil, too – Atsas sells most of its high-end oil as a nutraceutical nutritional supplement on the international market. In the UK, for example, a 100 ml bottle of their high-phenolic oil fetches £23 online. They also bottle and package more ‘table’ olive oil (which is still very high in polyphenols) for both export and local Cypriot markets.

“For me,” says Anastasia, wrinkling her face at the taste of that world-leading, USD$300-per-litre oil she has just tasted, while guiding me through the different products, “I prefer the other one, the local one. It is more smooth, more…tasty. But for the last three years, I have been trying to get used to this one.”

‘Getting used to it’ is perhaps an appropriate term. Producing olive oil for a global export market may not feel totally in line with maintaining local culture and heritage…but in some ways it might be.

If nothing else, it certainly gives hope to the idea that other young people like Anastasia can be inspired to have an exciting, fulfilling life in farming. It also speaks to the possibility that we may need to look both outwards and inwards in order to find the best and most sustainable solutions – not only in Cyprus, but beyond.


Photos courtesy of Nicolas Netien and Anastasia Panteli.

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