As It Happens

Charges against scientists dropped in Italian olive tree devastation

Last week in Italy, a judge dismissed charges against scientists accused of being responsible for the spread of a disease that has led to the death of thousands of olives trees in the southern Italian region of Puglia.

Populist politicians whipped up anti-science conspiracy theories, says researcher

An olive tree pruned completely because it was infected by Xylella fastidiosa. (Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)
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Last week in Italy, a judge dismissed charges against scientists accused of being responsible for the spread of a disease that has led to the death of thousands of olives trees in the southern Italian region of Puglia.

The accusations against the scientists date back to 2015, two years after the Xylella fastidiosa disease began killing off the olive trees of Italy's boot-shaped region.

"There are millions of olives which are affected and possibly several tens of thousands of olives already dying or even dead," Temple University biologist Enrico Bucci, one of the first people to write about the disease, told As It Happens host Carol Off.  

When the disease was discovered, scientists advised farmers to destroy infected trees, as well as healthy trees within a certain radius, in order to prevent its spread.

They also told farmers to monitor the presence of the spittlebug, an insect that spreads the disease from tree to tree. 

'There were riots and revolts starting'

Those guidelines sparked a backlash against the scientists in an area where olive trees are incredibly important, both economically and culturally.

Local politicians, many part of the Five Star populist movement, accused the researchers of spreading the disease to get more money to study it, and for the companies they worked for. And they blamed the European Union for imposing drastic solutions from afar.

"There were riots and revolts starting," Bucci said. "Interestingly, most of them were not led by farmers, but by activists, basically. So even people [who didn't] own a single olive tree, they started spreading misinformation."

Protesters sit on the branches of an olive tree as forestry officers stand by. Puglian growers have opposed the government's slash-and-burn plan, saying it won't contain the bacteria's spread. (Gaetano Loporto/Associated Press)

In 2015, prosecutors in Lecce charged 10 scientists and researchers with spreading of a plant disease, willful violation of the provisions on the environment, fake material committed by public officials in public documents, fraudulent misrepresentation and the destruction or disfigurement of natural beauty, reports the Olive Oil Times.

'They smear scientists'

Although the charges have been dropped due to lack of evidence, Judge Alcide Maritati made note of the financial benefits the scientists coud reap from study of the disease, saying that it "clearly influenced the approach of the suspects to the issue at an early stage, even at the expense of the transparency of scientific research."

Bucci said those comments were contradictory and anti-science.

'What they are saying is scientists are guilty from a moral perspective," he said. "At the same time, they smear scientists and dismiss the charges."

Red crosses are painted on olive trees to be cut in the effort to contain an outbreak of a bacteria that has infected hundreds of thousands of olive trees in Puglia, southern Italy. (Max Frigione/Ansa/Associated Press)

The accusations against the scientists have died down somewhat now that the charges against them have been thrown out, he said. 

But the spread of Xylella fastidiosa has continued at a strong clip. It's now reached the north of Puglia, and has killed hundreds of thousands of olive trees. 

Written by Alison Broverman, with files from Megan Williams. Interview with Enrico Bucci produced by Ashley Mak.

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