17th Feb 2019

EU divided over Italy's olive tree disease

  • Olive trees in the Salento peninsula in Apulia have been progressively withering and dying in what has been dubbed drying-out syndrome (Photo: Stew Dean)

The EU is being railroaded into a plan to eradicate up to 1 million centuries-old olive trees in one of the most picturesque tourist spots of southern Italy, campaigners say, causing untold environmental damage in the mistaken belief that such radical action could contain an outbreak of a killer bug.

The Salento peninsula in Apulia, the region that forms the heel of Italy’s boot, is the only part of the EU that has been affected by the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium.

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  • Apulia is Italy’s biggest regional producer of olive oil, accounting for 40 percent of national output last year (Photo: Kevin Harber)

Its olive trees have been progressively withering and dying in what has been dubbed drying-out syndrome.

Other EU states are keen to snuff out the outbreak, detected in October 2013, since dozens of other crops, such as grape-bearing vines or citrus trees, could also come under attack, although the contagiousness of the Italian strand of the bug has not yet been fully studied.

“The French are absolutely terrified that it could affect their wine industry,” one EU source says, adding that other olive-oil-producing nations, such as Spain, also have strong concerns.

Authorities in Apulia have responded to the epidemic by drawing up quarantine maps that foresee a 1-million-hectare eradication zone in the province of Lecce. Trees selected for felling have been marked with red crosses, and the chopping should start Monday (30 March).

The eradication plan, which has been discussed in Brussels for weeks, would likely compromise Apulia’s position as Italy’s biggest regional producer of olive oil – it accounted for 40 percent of national output last year – and devastate Salento’s landscape, which is dominated by majestic olive trees, including a 1,400-old specimen that was symbolically donated to US First Lady Michelle Obama three years ago.

“The European Commission risks condemning to death the whole Apulia eco-system,” Peacelink, an NGO that is fronting the campaign to save the trees, wrote in a March 22 letter to EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, who last week defended the “painful” option of cutting down sick trees.

Peacelink cites alternative research conducted by the University of Foggia, an Apulian outfit whose conclusions clash with those reached by government-sanctioned studies.

Foggia researchers suggest that the Xylella bug may be only a secondary cause of death for Salento’s trees, coming after a fungal contagion that is curable without resorting to chainsaws.

“More than 500 olive trees, treated for fungi, have recovered and have been living in good health already since spring 2014,” Peacelink’s letter to Andriukaitis says.

“The treatment … could be affected to all trees affected, to other regions, to other EU countries that are worried about the fast outbreak of the disease,” it adds.

Antonia Battaglia, Peacelink’s representative in Brussels, has been making the rounds trying to convince commission officials.

She tells EUobserver that her group has “absolutely nothing against” Brussels bodies, but is concerned that they are being blindsided by misleading information supplied by Italian authorities.

She suggested that a mistaken belief that the EU could compensate Apulian farmers affected by eradications with “millions of euros” was feeding local politicians’ appetite to go ahead with the plan, in the hope that Brussels funds could help them win votes ahead of regional elections scheduled for 31 May.

Battaglia says she was given assurances that before a final EU decision is taken on the trees’ fate, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) would advise the commission on the soundness of the information supplied by her organisation.

The Italy-based EFSA issued a lengthy opinion on the Xylella outbreak in January. It stated that there was “no indication that eradication is a successful option once the disease is established in an area,” and recommended the “continuation and intensification of research activities on the host range, epidemiology and control” of the Xylella outbreak in Salento.

But an EU official speaking Friday on condition of anonymity, after a two-day meeting of the EU Plant Health committee, made up of experts from the commission and member states, insisted that trees in the quarantined area had to be cut down.

“There should not be any hesitation, there should be an immediate felling” of all plants with Xylella symptoms, the source said, arguing that it was necessary to sacrifice the 10 percent of trees “which are dying anyhow,” in order to save the remaining 90 percent.

The official said there were arguments between Italy’s representatives, who advocated less radical actions, and counterparts from other EU nations, which wanted more decisive measures, including a wider ban on plant exports out of Salento and a bigger buffer zone where pesticides will have to be deployed to limit the outbreak.

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