Italy fears disease will destroy its famous olive trees

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Manni reached down into a patch of grass, picking through weeds until he pinched what appeared to be a glob of spit but was actually the protective casing for the nymph stage of the spittlebug. The spittlebugs will start flying this month and have served as a primary vector of the outbreak, chewing on the leaves of infected trees and then carrying the bacterium to other, healthy trees, like an unseen wildfire. Scientists say no one yet knows the extent of the outbreak because some infected trees may not yet be showing symptoms.

“There are many,” Manni said, pointing to a few globs in the grass. “Here, here.”

Italian officials, blamed by olive growers for reacting too slowly, have now divided the affected region into quarantine areas, with the buffer zone extending across the peninsula. Infected trees and plants were supposed to be cut down in one of the quarantine areas north of the buffer zone, while growers in the contaminated region south of the buffer zone were supposed to prune infected trees and cut surrounding grasses to better control insects.

But last week, an Italian administrative court suspended olive-tree culling in Puglia. Italy’s Agriculture Ministry has appealed the decision, and culling could resume soon.

Maurizio Martina, Italy’s agriculture minister, said that, at most, about 35,000 trees could be uprooted under the government plan — out of the estimated 11 million olive trees in the area. So far, the ministry said officials have cut down only six trees, with farmers culling an additional 100 or so. But the culling numbers could grow far higher assuming the new court ruling is overturned.

“This is a European emergency that we need to address with a uniform response,” Martina said in an emailed response to questions about the outbreak.

Scientists say that a buffer zone may be useful but warn that simply cutting down infected trees will not solve the problem in southern Salento. “The only feasible option is coexistence — and to create an open sky laboratory in that area,” said Donato Boscia, a scientist at Italy’s National Research Council.

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