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Politics of Palestinian Olive Oil Revealed by Prof. Anne Meneley

Research Reveals National Political Imagery Affects Food Economies

According to Trent University anthropology professor Dr. Anne Meneley, the marketing of olive oil from various parts of the world is highly affected by society’s cultural relationship with food and reflects the current state of global economics and politics.

“Palestinian olive oil provides the maximal contrast to Tuscan olive oil, which benefits greatly from the positive imagery associated with its location,” Prof. Meneley explained. “Palestine, on the other hand, is not imagined as a desirable place to go – it is seen as a site of danger, which affects the trajectory of the marketing of its olive oil.”

Tuscan producers are considered the most successful olive oil marketers in the world, however after spending some time researching their industry, Prof. Meneley turned to lesser known world of Palestinian olive oil. “After 9-11, I felt a sense of obligation to teach about the Middle East,” she noted. This interest led her into the olive tree groves of Palestine, home to some of the oldest groves in the world, with some dating back as far as 2,000 years.

To market their product, Palestinian olive oil producers have developed a fair trade label that appeals to people internationally who feel solidarity with the Palestinian farmers. They have also adapted their oil production methods to meet global tastes. Prof. Meneley explained that olive oil has to pass two tests in order to legally qualify as extra virgin. The first is a chemical test to determine if its acidity level is less than 0.8%, and the second is an organoleptic test – or taste test. “Experts grade the oil’s flavour to ensure there are no defects and that it doesn’t taste skunky,” said Prof. Meneley. She went on to explain that the quality criteria are based on European standards which reflect their hegemony in global gourmet foods. “Olive oil quality is modeled on the wine industry, which uses a discourse of connoisseurship.”

Olive oil is very important to Palestine’s economy. However, it remains difficult to export because there is no port, airport and it has an uncertain legal status. Since the closure of the border, Israel has tightened up permits so Palestinian farmers have to transfer oil from truck to truck and need someone with Jerusalem identification to bring it to the port of Haifa, where Israeli firms pack it up for shipping. Even then, depending on how the product is labelled, it may be held up on the docks. This is problematic for Palestinian olive oil marketers because olive oil is very sensitive to light and heat.

In addition to her research on the production, consumption and circulation of olive oil, Prof. Meneley also explores its cultural significance. She commented that “Palestinian olive oil resonates in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, who share in the symbolism of olive branches as a representation of peace.”

Here in Canada, olive oil has created new opportunities for improved social understanding. The work of Robert Massoud, who founded Zatoun, a non-profit organization that imports fair trade olive oil from Palestine, was recognized by the YMCA International in 2004. Nominated by Yosher, a Jewish activist group based in Toronto, Mr. Massoud received the 2004 YMCA Peace Medallion for Metropolitan Toronto primarily on the strength of his work with Zatoun, which is the Arabic word for olive. This organization has become one of the leading suppliers of Palestinian olive oil in Canada, enabling consumers to purchase it online.

“Although no consumer movement can replace political efforts to make Palestine a viable state, people can use everyday food choices to embody a peaceful political agenda,” said Prof. Meneley.

For more information about Prof. Meneley’s research, please visit her website.

Posted on Monday, August 11, 2008.

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