Just under five years ago olive oil producers in Italy and other southern Europe countries started to notice that some of their olive trees were dying.
They were becoming dried out and twisted. Some sort of disease was attacking the trees, some of them hundreds of years old, transforming landscapes and threatening an ancient agricultural activity that has sustained communities for centuries.
On the Forestaforte plantation in Ugento in the south of Italy 4000 olive trees used to thrive. It has been in the same Italian family for almost five hundred years. Then, just a few years ago, bacteria, since identified as Xylella Fastidiosa, started to attack the trees, drying them up and killing them slowly.
"My output has plunged by around 80 percent in just three years," olive oil producer Giovanni Melcarne told Euronews. "This disease has completely destroyed the landscape and our production system. Any eventual recovery will be very slow.”
The ruined plantation is now an experimental field for researchers and students from Europe, Northern Africa, the Middle East and Iran. They are involved in an European research project aimed at establishing early diagnostic tools and sharing knowledge to tackle the problem.
"The sooner you can identify the disease, the more guarantees you have to face it," explained Maroun el Moujabber, an agronomist with the Cure-XF project. "So this is the first thing we are doing. The second thing is to share scientific knowledge. Because this fight against the disease must be multidisciplinary. We must fight it not only from a biological perspective, but also using tools from other areas like sociology, economics and biotechnology.”
The bacteria is mainly transmitted from tree to tree by insects. Researchers first had to identify and characterise the pathogen, which was a challenge. More