NEWS » Italian Olive Trees under threat

Italian Olive Trees under threat

A killer bacteria is affecting Italian olive trees. The region hit by the infection from the bacteria xylella fastidiosa is Puglia. Being Italy the second biggest producer of olive oil in the EU, after Spain, significant damage to the vegetation and the region’s economy is foreseen. The spreading of the disease could cause the cutting down of over a million trees. Italy has marked off an emergency area of 241,000 hectares (593,000 acres), that is at least 10% of some 11 million olive trees in the worst-affected Lecce area of Puglia. The infection causes the trees to wither away and die. Up to now there is no remedy.

The problem needs to be dealt with at European level, as there are risks for the disease to be spread abroad to countries where olives and olive oil from Italy is traded. 

Experts from the 28 European Union nations have already gathered in Brussels  to discuss steps to stop the outbreak of the xylella fastidiosa bacteria, but no decision was taken because of diverging views.

France and Spain fear for their own olive groves as well as vines and citrus trees, which can also be infected by the insect-transmitted bacteria.

Italy would prefer less drastic measures in order to preserve age-old olive groves.

Perhaps the virus was underestimated at the beginning, but last spring thousands of trees began suddenly to dry-up presenting all the same symptoms: yellowing of the foliage and internal browning of the wood. It was thought at the beginning to be a fungus, the Phaeoacremonium, found in all the samples studied by researchers. Then, the final diagnosis was shocking: the cause was Xylella fastidiosa, a bacteria that has never been found before in Europe and never on this kind of plant. 

No one knows how and when this deadly parasite appeared in Puglia. The gateway to the Old Continent was Gallipoli. From there, it was spread by insects of the family of leafhoppers.

Tens of millions of Euros are necessary to face up to the emergency and the entire National Solidarity Fund, amounting to 18 million euro, would not be enough to prevent the bacteria from spreading.  

Giulia Lombardo

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