Olive tree near Oria, in the area of Salento in Puglia, that has been dug up due to an outbreak of Xylella fastidiosa. (Photo by Cain Burdeau for Olive Oil Times)

Six years since it first appeared, with no cure in sight, olive pro­duc­ers through­out Europe are learn­ing to live with the dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences of Xylella fas­tidiosa.

Xylella fas­tidiosa (Xf), a plant bac­te­ria the European Commission labels one of the most dan­ger­ous in the world, was ini­tially spot­ted in the Apulia region in the south of Italy in 2013. Since then, evi­dence of its impact has been dis­cov­ered in Spain, France, Portugal, and parts of the Middle East.

The effects of this dis­as­ter on the fam­i­lies and com­pa­nies involved are absolutely dev­as­tat­ing. Centuries of his­tory, cul­ture and tra­di­tions are destroyed.- Giovanni Melcarne, Lecce-based olive grower

A spokesper­son from the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) said that, while the body of research on Xylella has expanded sig­nif­i­cantly since its dis­cov­ery, so has the com­plex­ity of the dis­ease, which has com­pli­cated the ongo­ing research efforts in pur­suit of a cure.

See more: Xylella fas­tidiosa News

The lack of a cure has made con­tain­ment more impor­tant than ever, with EFSA sim­u­la­tions indi­cat­ing that grow­ers who dis­cover signs of Xf must take imme­di­ate action.

“[It’s] essen­tial that the emer­gency phy­tosan­i­tary mea­sures (includ­ing the cut­ting of plants and the vec­tor con­trol) are applied timely and effec­tively at the first detec­tion of a new out­break,” the spokesper­son said. “If even just one of these ele­ments is not applied in the cor­rect man­ner it becomes very dif­fi­cult to erad­i­cate or con­tain the dis­ease.”

While the EFSA has con­tin­ued to review new stud­ies, includ­ing some that offer promis­ing results for resis­tant and tol­er­ant plant cul­ti­vars, it does not appear a cure will emerge any­time soon, news that does lit­tle to encour­age olive oil pro­duc­ers such as Giovanni Melcarne, whose fam­ily has been grow­ing olives in the Italian province of Lecce for more than 500 years. He esti­mates Xylella has destroyed at least 80 per­cent of his farm.

“The effects of this dis­as­ter on the fam­i­lies and com­pa­nies involved are absolutely dev­as­tat­ing,” Melcarne said. “Centuries of his­tory, cul­ture and tra­di­tions are destroyed.”

While the Italian gov­ern­ment has released some leg­is­la­tion man­dat­ing con­tain­ment, for the most part, they have been met with crit­i­cism and dis­trust.

The gov­ern­ment has also been con­demned by farm­ers and, notably, the European Court of Justice for a lack of action, and a fail­ure to stop the bac­terium from advanc­ing. In Lecce, Melcarne says he has seen lit­tle effec­tive gov­ern­men­tal action.

“Policy has been blind and slug­gish, unable to fore­see ade­quate mea­sures to con­tain the spread of the bac­te­ria,” Melcarne said. “Olive farm­ers and millers are left alone in this dis­as­ter.”

As the gov­ern­ment wres­tles with how best to stem the cri­sis, grow­ers are des­per­ately try­ing to min­i­mize their eco­nomic losses. Some are work­ing to plant new olive trees, despite the bureau­cratic hur­dles they may face. Others, includ­ing Melcarne, are adapt­ing more imag­i­na­tive solu­tions, such as devel­op­ing new prod­ucts and rent­ing out farm­houses to vis­it­ing tourists.

As Xylella begins to set­tle in as the new real­ity, Melcarne remains cer­tain that change will only come if grow­ers learn to adapt the meth­ods pro­posed by the lat­est research, such as the resis­tant cul­ti­vars described by the EFSA. Without that, he said, there is lit­tle hope for the region.

“A peo­ple that is against sci­ence does not have any future,” Melcarne said.




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