Deadly, insect-borne bacteria destroying olive groves could devastate Italy’s olive oil industry
The ancient olive groves of southern Italy, which provide much of the prized oil Italy exports to the world, are being destroyed by deadly, insect-borne bacterium which has already infected nearly half a million trees and has no known cure.
The Xylella Fastidiosa bacteria, which hails from the Americas, has now infected trees across 74,000 acres of the region of Puglia in Italy’s heel and is spreading rapidly.
“Eight months ago it was spread across just 20,000 acres, which gives you an idea of how fast it travels,” Rolando Manfredini, an expert with Italian farmers’ lobby group Coldiretti told the Telegraph.
“The trees just dry out and die, looking like they have been burned,” he added.
Now, as the bacteria spread across the bottom half of Puglia, experts have developed a bold plan to create a mile-wide cordon, stretching from the Adriatic coast on east to the Ionian coast on the west of Puglia, to seal off the area.
Inside the cordon, grass will be cut back and pesticides will be used to halt the insects that spread the bacteria.
“We are counting on this because Puglia is one large olive grove, and with no cure, this cordon may be around for a long time,” said Antonio Guario, a health official with the regional government.
The area below the planned cordon, centred around the baroque town of Lecce, contains about 10 million olive trees, some of which are 600 years old and renowned for their gnarled, twisting trunks.
Of the roughly 800,000 trees inside the area known to be contaminated, more than half are likely to be infected, said Mr Guario.
Italy currently exports 480,000 tonnes of olive oil annually, making it the world’s second largest exporter after Spain, but with Puglia accounting for 180,000 tonnes of the total, Italy’s business could be devastated if the bacteria spreads.
Puglia’s endless olive groves have helped draw British expatriates to the region, which has been dubbed ’Trullishire’ after the traditional local houses known as Trullis. Wealthy Italians pay up to 5,000 euros (£4,000) to uproot ancient trees to replant in their gardens in northern Italy.
“These trees are monuments and produce one of the key ingredients of the Mediterranean diet,” said Mr Manfredini.
Magistrates are now probing how the bacterium, which has also plagued vines in California, crossed the Atlantic, and are reportedly investigating allegations that the bacterium was brought to a scientific conference in Puglia in 2010 and inadvertently released.
Mr Manfredini played down the theory. “It is far more likely is it came on an imported plant like oleander,” he said.
With the clock ticking, officials are complaining that the Italian government has dragged its heels on setting up the cordon this summer as ministers headed to the beach.
Mr Manfredini pointed out Italy’s motorways are often lined with oleanders, which turn the roads into flower lined avenues, but could also turn them into deadly conduits for the disease to spread through Italy to other regions noted for their olives, like Tuscany.
“It’s a terrible scenario,” he said.
Meanwhile, one Puglian producer complained it was already too late for him. “They said it was nothing, that we were crazy to talk of a disease,” Antonio Leone told La Repubblica. “And while they were talking, we had already become like these trees — dead.”