Italy under fire for failing to contain spread of deadly olive tree bacteria

The European Commission slams Italy over a fight that's pitted scientists struggling to stop a disease that's killing Puglia's olive trees, against locals who think it's all a plot hatched up to kill the farming way of life.
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/AP)

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The European Commission is accusing Italy of allowing a deadly bacteria to spread.

The bacterium is called Xylella fastidiosa and it causes olive trees to dry up and die. The disease likely began in the Americas but it showed up a few years ago in Puglia, on the Italian heel. 
A researcher from the University of Bari takes pictures of an olive tree in Puglia, southern Italy. (Ivan Tortorella/AP)

Scientists say that if they can't stop it the disease could spread across Europe killing not just olive but other trees as well.  

Alison Abbott is a European correspondent for the journal Nature. Abbott spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about how she and her colleagues discovered that the Italian government is failing to monitor and contain the disease. 

 "Very little has been done — much less than should have been done. And time and bacteria wait for no man, right?"- Alison Abbott, European correspondent for the journal Nature

Carol Off: Alison, this sounds like a serious threat to the Italian olive industry and beyond. What's the European Commission accusing the Italians of having done?

Alison Abbott: The European Commission has various rules and regulations of how to handle epidemic infections. It requires action to be taken locally. That's very precisely outlined. The audit points out that the authorities in Puglia have been very remiss in carrying out these monitoring and controlling activities.  And, in fact, I did some research on this myself, and with the help of a colleague in Italy who was able to get some detailed figures on the actual monitoring that's been done, you can actually show that nobody was actually monitoring at all last year, essentially. 
Red crosses are painted on olive trees' logs that should 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/AP)

CO: We'll get into the details of why this isn't being contained but just tell us a bit about what Xylella does to the trees.

AA: Xylella penetrates the sap of the tree. It gets very deep into the tree — into the sort of blood system, so to speak, of the tree. There it expands and physically blocks the flow of fluids through the tree. So the tree, at the top, just simply dies of thirst.

CO: And how widespread do you think this is, at this point, among the olive trees?

AA: At the moment it is contained within the heel of the boot of Italy so to that extent it should be relatively easy to draw a line across it and prevent it from moving forward. 
The xylella fastidiosa bacteria has ravaged Puglia's olive trees. (Gaetano Loporto/AP)

CO: But it's not happening. It's not being prevented — is that right?

AA: I think the idea is that it's not being prevented sufficiently. This disease can spread very rapidly because insects carry it from one tree to the next. The measures to control the insects, to uproot the trees and destroy nearby trees haven't been carried out to the extent that they need to. I think what everybody is hoping — we hoped this also last year and it didn't happen — but we hope that following the exposure this year that the controls haven't been taking place properly, Italy will now start to take this a lot more seriously and stop it in its tracks. 

CO: Why do you think they are not being more aggressive?

AA: The small holding farmers that have small olive groves there, they stand to lose everything if their trees are cut down. So the protesters are in large part saying we don't know it's Xylella. Why are you cutting down our trees? Why are you doing this to control something we don't believe in? The scientists have actually proven that it's Xylella but protesters say there are other options. Why is that important? Because Xylella is incurable. You have no hope. But if you hope against hope that actually maybe it's a fungus that is causing this disease, maybe something else that you can cure, and then you don't have to cut them down.

So these are the sort of emotional factors that are leading to this very crazy situation. Populist politicians are siding with these emotional arguments and it has to be said the legal system in Puglia has also intervened, which has made it extremely difficult. One prosecutor, last year, opened an investigation into the scientists implying that the scientists may have actually caused the disease. [He] also investigated whether Xylella wasn't the cause and put a stop to all uprooting of trees while his investigation continued. The accusations that are being investigated are obviously completely ridiculous. Nonetheless, it's made authorities a little bit worried. Should they chop the trees down supposing the court decides something else? So far, very little has been done — much less than should have been done. And time and bacteria wait for no man, right?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Alison Abbott.


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