Authorities in Italy Envision a Post-Xylella Puglia

Italian authorities have earmarked €50 million to help private businesses plant new crops in destroyed olive groves and improve overall biodiversity in the region.
Apr. 28, 2022
Paolo DeAndreis

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It is a race against time in Puglia to cur­tail the spread of the insect species deemed the main cul­prit for the spread of Xylella fas­tidiosa in the south­ern Italian region.

Wide-rang­ing pre­ven­tive actions have been deployed and are con­sid­ered cru­cial to pro­tect exist­ing olive groves in Italy’s most rel­e­vant olive oil-pro­duc­ing region.

Looking at those spec­tral panora­mas caused by Xylella weighs heav­ily on every­body’s heart. It is time to diver­sify agri­cul­ture and bring beauty back.- Pantaleo Piccinno, pres­i­dent, Salento-Jonic Agriculture Quality District

Olive grow­ers, farm­ers and landown­ers in the vicini­ties of Bari have until May 15 to exe­cute the manda­tory prun­ing of the trees and plow­ing. Public and pri­vate enti­ties will also take care of the mow­ing grass in uncul­ti­vated areas, road banks, drainage chan­nels and other areas.

The goal is to limit the devel­op­ment of the meadow spit­tle­bug, whose lar­vae are matur­ing dur­ing these weeks.

See Also:Dogs and Drones – New Projects in Puglia Emphasize Early Detection Against Xylella

However, cur­tail­ing the spread of the Xylella fas­tidiosa vec­tor insect is just one of the actions envis­aged in Puglia to bring income and oppor­tu­ni­ties back to local farm­ers.

The goal of the cur­rent projects is to bring back agri­cul­ture and income to areas severely hit by Xylella,” Pantaleo Piccinno, the pres­i­dent of the Salento-Jonic Agriculture Quality District (DAJS), told Olive Oil Times. We are work­ing with a new approach, to replace destroyed olive groves with new crops, reshape our ter­ri­tory and give strength to its agri­cul­tural excel­len­cies.”

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DAJS started to re-con­nect exist­ing agribusi­ness, tech­nol­ogy providers, researchers and local insti­tu­tions in 2017, work­ing, in Piccinno’s words, to envi­sion a world after Xylella.”

Salento is the most south­ern area in Puglia and has been the heart of olive oil pro­duc­tion in Italy for the past 300 years.

It is believed that Xylella fas­tidiosa pauca, the sub­species that infects and ulti­mately kills olive trees, began to spread in 2008 when a sin­gle infected cof­fee plant from Costa Rica was intro­duced in Italy.

The deadly olive tree pathogen was first detected in Puglia in 2013 and has since killed more than four mil­lion olive trees. In 2021, the Italian national asso­ci­a­tion Confagricoltura esti­mated that more than 150,000 hectares of olive groves had been hit by the Olive Tree Quick Decline syn­drome (QODS), the dis­ease caused by Xylella fas­tidiosa.

The mil­len­nial olive trees that once were are not there any­more,” Piccinno said. If we could replant olive trees which are mil­len­nial and Xyella-free, we would do that, but the truth is that most of that is gone now.”

We have to build our future,” he added. Approximately 50 researchers from many dif­fer­ent local enti­ties such as the University of Bari or the National Research Council have been help­ing us to work on strate­gies that look 20, 40 or even 100 years from now.”

The first ideas included expand­ing the tra­di­tional vine­yards, which are immune to Xylella fas­tidiosa pauca. Other projects were devoted to plant­ing fruit trees and revamp­ing bio­di­ver­sity through­out the region.

The ideas revolved around a sus­tain­able regen­er­a­tion approach involv­ing local farm­ers and food pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies within exist­ing prod­uct chains.

To that end, the Italian Ministry of Agriculture has pro­vided €50 mil­lion to the Virtuous Roots project. It is a pro­gram that involves the whole Jonico-Salento area tra­di­tional farm­ing, such as cereal grow­ing, live­stock, vine­yards, fruits and veg­eta­bles,” Piccinno said.

The project will also con­sider sus­tain­abil­ity, irri­ga­tion and the need to halt deser­ti­fi­ca­tion in Salento and the rest of the Mediterranean basin. The phe­nom­e­non has accel­er­ated as a result of Xylella fas­tidiosa.

We do not have shade any­more in the area,” Piccinno said, ref­er­enc­ing the mas­sive olive tree canopies that have long since dis­ap­peared.

The sur­face tem­per­a­ture has been grow­ing sub­stan­tially,” he added. That means that those deser­ti­fi­ca­tion processes are pro­gress­ing quickly. We need to focus on bio­di­ver­sity as a pro­tec­tive tool for the ter­ri­tory and stop the degra­da­tion of the soil.”

Authorities have also ear­marked €5 mil­lion of the lat­est funds to relaunch local olive oil and food pro­duc­tion and pro­mote Salento in national and inter­na­tional media cam­paigns.

The affec­tion towards Salento remains strong in the heart of every­body and of the tourist, but look­ing at those spec­tral panora­mas caused by Xylella weighs heav­ily on every­body’s heart,” Piccinno said. It is time to diver­sify agri­cul­ture and bring beauty back.”

Vineyards will play a piv­otal role in this effort, partly due to the pop­u­lar­ity of tra­di­tional wine pro­duc­tion and the vines’ nat­ural immu­nity to Xylella fas­tidiosa.

What we have here are vine­yards that are cur­rently the only crop that is part of our tra­di­tion and totally free of Xylella,” Piccinno said.

Relevant par­ties are eager to par­tic­i­pate in the new strat­egy. A third step of the local recov­ery involves pri­vate com­pa­nies invest­ing in new food pro­duc­tion.

They are pre­sent­ing projects to start grow­ing pome­gran­ate, avo­cado and mango in green­houses and med­i­c­i­nal plants while also deploy­ing bee­keep­ing, the lat­ter being use­ful for honey and a pre­cious indi­ca­tor of well-being and organic farm­ing,” Piccinno said.

While diver­si­fi­ca­tion is key to restor­ing the area, olive oil will con­tinue to play a rel­e­vant role in Salento. The lat­est plans focus on plant­ing Xylella-resilient cul­ti­vars, such as Leccino and FS17, both of which show strong resis­tance to the bac­te­ria.

Xylella still affects those olive trees, but up to now, it seems not to have rel­e­vant effects on their health,” Piccinno said. We do not know much about this yet, but it is encour­ag­ing that three years after the first such groves were planted, grow­ers are already ready to har­vest. Albeit sym­bolic, it is encour­ag­ing.”

In [Salento], like the Lecce province, of the 100,000 pre-exist­ing [olive farm­ing] hectares, we esti­mate that about one-third will be restored,” he added. That will hap­pen because the new pro­duc­ing capac­ity that will be built will be equal to what has been lost.”

Piccinno also hinted at a par­a­digm shift in the groves, with tra­di­tional groves hit by Xylella fas­tidiosa being replaced by new high-den­sity olive groves. Traditional groves have only a few dozen olive trees per hectare, while the new orchards will have between 280 and 900 olive trees per hectare.

Olive trees that pre­vi­ously grew in the more arid and rocky parts of the province will not be replaced by new ones.

What we are work­ing on is refor­esta­tion ini­tia­tives in mar­ginal lands, which can help in cur­tail­ing the soil deple­tion phe­nom­ena, also adding to coun­try­side and beauty,” Piccinno said.

He ulti­mately aspires toward a Puglia that will remain the heart of Italian olive oil pro­duc­tion and ben­e­fit from the restored bio­di­ver­sity that other crops and plant cover will bring o the region in the not-so-dis­tant future.



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