The bacteria, and poor political choices, destroying Italian olive oil

The bacteria, and poor political choices, destroying Italian olive oil

Two workers saw off the withered branches of an olive tree infected by Xylella fastidiosa in Squinzano, 20 kilometres north of Lecce, Italy.

(Stefano Fasano)

“How is it going? Well, I don’t know what to tell you,” replies Giovanni Miglietta, a 51-year-old from Trepuzzi in the Apulia (Puglia) region of south-eastern Italy. He stares with infinite sadness at his centuries-old olive trees with their tangled, skeletal trunks, and fails to notice as raindrops fall from the sky and accumulate on his glasses. He inherited these trees from his father, who died 25 years ago. Now all of Miglietta’s trees are destined to die too, and with them, quite possibly his business as an extra-virgin olive oil producer. There are thousands more like him in the same region, some of whom have farmed and produced olive oil for generations, and there is nothing that any of them can do to save their trees.

The first dead olive trees started to appear in Gallipoli, in the south of Apulia. While some locals say it began around 2009, the first scientific evidence reporting this phenomenon dates back to 2013. Since then, whole fields have withered in various regions of Italy as well as France and Portugal.

The reason behind this ecological and economic disaster is Xylella fastidiosa, a plant bacteria considered to be one of the most dangerous in the world. The blight usually takes hold of the high branches first, which dry out, before spreading very quickly to the whole plant, leaving it desiccated, leafless and lifeless.

The consumption of the by-products of an infected tree doesn’t harm humans but the bacteria can infect over 500 plant varieties. The deadly effects of various subspecies of this bacterium has been already observed in the vineyards of California and the almond and coffee plantations of Costa Rica.

Before the Apulian olive trees started to present any symptoms, Europe had been Xylella-free. But now that it’s here, it could devastate olive oil production across the continent. According to the International Olive Council, Italy produces some 13 per cent of the world’s olive oil and in 2018 the sector was responsible for €2.32 billion in turnover, making it the second largest producer in the world, after Spain. Apulia is the most important olive growing region in the country, according to the FAO, producing about 40 per cent of the country’s olive oil exports. The risk of contagion – across Italy first, and then the rest of Europe – has put Brussels on high alert as the EU’s entire olive oil output constitutes around 66 per cent of global production.

According to Italy’s National Direct Cultivators Confederation (Coldiretti) the disease is currently spreading northward at a pace of two kilometres per month; the first dying trees have been seen as far north as Fasano, which is 100 kilometres away from Lecce on the Adriatic coast, and one tree is being closely monitored due to its suspected contagion in Monopoli, 10 kilometres further north. There are thought to be 60 million olive trees in Apulia; Coldiretti estimated that the number of olive trees destroyed in the province of Lecce alone amounts to approximately 21 million.

“No one told us anything about it before 2013. It was me that collected the first samples from olive trees in my father-in-law’s piece of land in Taviano, bringing it to be analysed,” recalls Dr Donato Boscia, a phytopathologist at the Italian National Research Council of Bari (CNR). “By the time we discovered what this infection was about, I was already afraid it was too late to stop the spreading,” he explains. He knew the disease – which probably arrived through an ornamental coffee plant from central America and is carried from tree to tree by common spittlebugs – remains dormant in apparently healthy trees, making it impossible to estimate how many plants were already infected. However, something had to be done, so he assembled a research team, mapping the affected areas and developing instruments to allow farmers to quickly identify infected trees.

Researchers vilified in a triumph of anti-science

Fearing the further spread of the bacteria, in 2014 the European Commission decided to enact a plan to burn down all infected trees to prevent further contagions. However, this approach to containing the disease – which extended to destroying trees next to the infected ones – resulted in incredible hostility from many farmers and local campaigners. In fact, despite the scientific evidence, many people did not even believe that the bacteria was the cause of the dying trees, and they argued that traditional cultivation and care practices could fix the problem. These trees had survived centuries and millennia without scientific intervention, they reasoned: why was it needed now?

The dissenting voices became so loud that they moved prosecutors in Lecce (where the contagion started) to investigate the researchers, accusing them of introducing the disease to the region. The investigation, which concluded this May, exonerated the researchers, but not before generating an endless series of debates and plot theories about the origin of the disease, while discrediting the work of the scientists.

These theories found strong political support at a national level in the form of the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement (M5S). This political party represented the anti-scientific stance of pressure groups opposed the eradication of infected trees and submitted a plea to the Lecce prosecutor’s office which would later lead to the investigation of the CNR researchers. This put the culling of trees on hold for months, making the containment of the disease practically impossible.

Just a year ago, the comedian and founder of M5S Beppe Grillo described the Xylella outbreak as “a huge hoax”, in an attempt to capitalise on the crisis to win votes. But the party line had clearly changed when an official M5S blog described the infestation as an “expanding dramatic massacre” this April. “I would rather not comment about this,” says Boscia, with a wry smile. But what he does say is that this triumph of anti-science and disinformation isn’t the sole responsibility of opposition parties like M5S, but also of the leftist government at that time. “What has been missing is effective institutional communication,” he says. “When all these anti-scientific theories came out, the government should have kept the boat steady and enacted a precise, official communication strategy to deny and disprove the [rumours]. This lack of communication is the main reason behind the misapplication of the containment measures, which has brought us to the point we’re at now,” he says, referring to the delays and refusal by farmers to comply with the directives prescribing the eradication of infected trees.

The public’s attitude towards the researchers and their warnings is beginning to change, as farmers are seeing that the trees are not healing by themselves. But is this change of heart too late? The battle against Xylella has not been won in any discernible way: even though there are still no official numbers to quantify the loss, anecdotal evidence suggests that Italy’s olive oil production has been irredeemably damaged and many farmers expect the next two years to be even worse. “Now that the contagion effects are very visible, people’s attitudes have changed towards science,” says Boscia.

Can total disaster be prevented?

With regards to long-term solutions, the plant virologist suggests that people need to learn to “live together with the bacteria”. There is no known cure for Xylella but researchers are testing different olive tree cultivar to determine their resilience to the bacteria. So far, two varieties – the Leccino and Favolosa olive trees – have proven their ability to live with the bacteria without succumbing to it, and many olive farmers are beginning to plant them in the hope of sustaining their businesses in the future. However, Boscia is warning farmers to exercise caution: “All it takes to create a new strain that could attack these two species is for the wrong mutation to happen in the bacteria’s DNA.” Moreover, he says, no long-term studies have been conducted on the resilience of these two cultivars. In addition, while the Leccino variety is of Tuscanian origin, the so-called ‘Favolosa’ is a patented cultivar, and it is owned by a single distributor, which has lead to concerns over speculation.

Grazia Barba runs a small olive grove in Monteroni, just a few kilometres outside of Lecce, and her Donna Oleria oil has won several awards for its quality, including a 2019 Japan Olive Oil Prize. But today her trees are infested with Xylella, and her main source of income has been decimated. Barba also used to make money from tourists who wanted to see Italy’s famed olive groves, but these visitors are becoming more and more scarce.

“We’ve had a drop in turnover of approximately one-third because of the infection,” she tells Equal Times. Her trees, like the majority planted in the south of Apulia, are of Ogliarola and Cellina cultivars, which are particularly vulnerable to the bacteria.

“We will eradicate and replant more resilient cultivars, when the moment arrives,” she says. But this will take time: a new olive tree needs at least five years before it starts fruiting, and 10-15 years before it reaches peak productivity. Luckily, she has already diversified her production with tomatoes, wheat and wine grapes as a stop-gap measure.

However, for those with larger businesses and no crop diversification prior to the arrival of Xylella, things are more complicated. Antonio Pascali, 33, inherited his father’s olive grove in Vernole, 15 kilometres south of Lecce, and made a successful business out of it. Today he owns more than 200 hectares and hires around 20 employees at the peak of each season. When the first seriously infected plants started to appear in 2016, he decided to plant 1000 Leccino and Favolosa olive trees. He was fined for infringing a ban on the reimplantation of any plant in any Xylella-infected field, but the trees seem to be thriving – for now.

“I had to provide continuity in the business, and I had a responsibility towards my workers. I could not wait for the lengthy and cumbersome bureaucratic procedures,” he says, highlighting a problem common to many olive farmers who saw their cultivations destroyed by Xylella. As regional authorities are responsible for authorising the eradication of every infected olive tree, and the implantation of all new trees, farmers are faced with a bureaucratic quagmire which can last for years. But even having taken these precautions, Pascali says he is unsure of what comes next: “We have enough resources for another year at the most. Our future looks quite bleak,” he admits.

The main concern is guaranteeing the sustainability of these olive businesses now that the initial impact of Xylella has passed – in Lecce, anyway. “The short-term political target needs to be the debureaucratisation of the whole process [of eradicating infected trees and planting resilient cultivars],” says Francesco Manzari, director of Coldiretti in Lecce. “Olive businesses cannot keep waiting the months or years currently needed to obtain the required permits. They simply cannot survive,” he says, while underlining the additional demographic threat this epidemic poses in an area that has seen significant waves of youth emigration over the last century. “A young person investing in the olive oil business can only react to this crisis in one of two ways: he can diversify, or he can sell everything and leave”.