Italy’s Olive Crisis Intensifies as Deadly Tree Disease Spreads

A vicious bacterium that is devastating southern Italy’s valuable olive groves is still spreading years after it was identified, because of opposition to measures meant to contain the pathogen.

Containment measures meant to stop a rampant bacterium have been frequently delayed.

After months of inaction, authorities in the Puglia region have now resumed efforts to track the spread of the bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, which causes a disease called olive quick decline syndrome (OQDS) that cannot be cured or eradicated.

But scientists say that the delays in implementing disease-containment measures have added to the growing risk that the infection will spread out of the Puglian peninsula, the region contained within the heel of Italy’s ‘boot’, and towards olive groves in Italy’s main landmass.

Italy declared a state of emergency over the crisis in 2015. But quarantine efforts — which can involve uprooting beloved, ancient trees — have been opposed by environmentalists and some farmers, and stopped again most recently in May. In the same month, the European Commission published an update on the situation and moved the certified infection zone 20 kilometres north.

The delays have been a problem, says plant pathologist Maria Saponari of the Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection in Bari, Puglia’s capital.

The delays have been a problem, says plant pathologist Maria Saponari of the Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection in Bari, Puglia’s capital. “The later you detect an infection, the later you can start all the containment actions that are needed.”

The budget now allocated by the Puglia’s regional government to track the bacterium — €1.8 million (AU$2,804,709 million) — still falls short of what is needed to implement the full set of containment measures agreed to by the Italian government and the European Commission four years ago.

Italy could now also face legal consequences for its inaction, after the European Commission in May made good on its longstanding threat to refer the nation to the European Court of Justice for violating its quarantine regulations. If found guilty, Italy could, for example, lose access to important agricultural subsidies. More