Alien bacteria threatens southern Italy’s most prized olive groves

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Observant holidaymakers driving through Puglia’s hazy olive groves this summer might notice the unusually desiccated and unhealthy state of the trees.

This is because the southern region – Italy’s most important olive oil-producing area – is under attack. The culprit, though, is not one of the usual suspects such as organized crime, corruption or bad weather, but a hostile alien species. Xylella fastidiosa, a plant bacteria first identified in the Americas, is responsible for the crisis in the olive groves. In the Salento, the southern half of the region (which forms the heel on the “boot” of Italy), around 800,000 trees, or 10 per cent, are now infected.

Many of Puglia’s most ancient trees, some 500 years old, are succumbing to the infection, which sees the plants dry out and become incapable of fruiting. Often only withered stumps are left.

The cost so far of the outbreak, in terms of lost trees alone, is €250m (£200m). But this figure is set to rise sharply. In desperation, the region has called in experts from the US to help it contain the contagion that began last year and is now spreading alarmingly and threatening to devastate the local economy.

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