Italy fears disease will destroy its famous olive trees

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Across the stony heel of Italy, a peninsula ringed by the blue-green waters of the Mediterranean, olive trees have existed for centuries, shaping the landscape and producing some of the nation’s finest olive oils. Except now many of the trees are dying.

Sprinkled among the healthy trees are clusters of sick ones, denuded of leaves and standing like skeletons, their desiccated branches bereft of olives. The trees are succumbing to a bacterial outbreak that is sweeping across one of Italy’s most famous olive regions, as families that have manufactured olive oil for generations now fear ruin, even as officials in the rest of Europe fear a broader outbreak.

“It is devastating,” said Enzo Manni, director of ACLI-Racale, an olive cooperative in the heart of the outbreak area. “It is apocalyptic. I compare it to an earthquake.”

Today, scientists estimate that 1 million olive trees in the peninsula, known as the Salento, are infected with the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, a figure that could rise rapidly.

For Italy, which annually produces 500 million tons of olive oil, trailing only Spain, the outbreak has forced a bitter bargain: To prevent the bacterium from spreading north, officials are trying to quarantine the outbreak in the lower half of the Salento, where most of the contaminated trees are, by carving a buffer zone that would serve as a sort of biological firebreak.
Olive trees infected by the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa in Lecce.
The Italian olive industry endured a terrible 2014 from bad weather and a nasty infestation of the olive fruit fly. But those are familiar problems. The bacterial outbreak — which is believed to have arrived with plants imported from Costa Rica and has destroyed citrus trees in Brazil and vineyards in California — poses a new danger for all of European agriculture.

 

In Brussels, the European Commission has backed off earlier proposals to cull millions of trees in the Salento and, instead, endorsed the Italian buffer zone as well as other surveillance ones north of the peninsula. The commission is also expected to soon finalize a policy that would demand swift culling in the case of any new outbreaks in other regions. And France has moved to protect its vineyards by banning the importation of certain species of plants from Puglia, the region of Italy that includes the Salento.

“The most important thing is that the disease doesn’t spread to the north,” Enrico Brivio, a European Commission spokesman, said, adding of olive growers in the Salento: “We sympathize with them. There are trees that have been there for hundreds of years. They are like monuments.”

Like a slow stroke
To drive through the southern half of the Salento is to realize that the hardest-hit areas surround the coastal town of Gallipoli and radiate southward, toward Racale and then down to the tip of Italy. The bacterium steadily restricts water flow from the roots of a tree to its branches and leaves. The olives are not affected but production gradually diminishes as a tree dies.

“It is like they have a slow stroke,” said Ettore, a local olive producer who would give only his first name because he did not want his company to be associated with the epidemic. “Slowly, it is as if the blood is no longer flowing, and the branches dry out and stop producing olives.”

Standing in the middle of a grove, Ettore, 32, and Manni, the co-op official, nodded toward a tree with a trunk easily 25 feet in circumference. It is called the Giant of Alliste, and local growers say it is 1,500 years old (a figure scientists say is unlikely). It appears healthy, except for one branch in which the leaves are reddened and curled, an early sign that the bacterium has struck.

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