Court Finds Italy Failed in Fight Against Olive Tree Disease

(CN) – Italy did not take crucial steps to stop the diffusion of a deadly plant disease now killing olive trees in southern Italy and spreading to other parts of the Mediterranean basin, the European Court of Justice ruled Thursday.

This 2017 photo shows an olive tree infected with Xylella fastidiosa that has been cut back to its trunk and then grafted with a variety of olive resistant to the plant disease. (CNS Photo/Cain Burdeau)

The court’s ruling, which is not available in English, came in a case brought by the European Commission, the European Union’s executive branch, against Italy.

The commission accuses Italy of failing to stop the spread of Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterium native to Central America that threatens a wide-range of European crops. The bacterium is devastating olive trees in Italy’s southern region of Puglia and it is attacking almond trees in Spain. There is no known cure.

The Luxembourg-based court found that Italy violated European laws by not quickly destroying trees in places where the disease had been found. The court also faulted Italy for poorly tracking the disease’s spread.

However, the court dismissed the commission’s allegation that Italy bears blame for not stopping the disease’s spread more generally. It said Italy’s failures did not mean it also caused Xylella’s spread.

It was unclear what repercussions, if any, the court’s ruling would have on efforts to stop the disease’s spread.

In a statement, the European Commission said the ruling backs up its contention that Italy has failed to prevent Xylella from spreading.

The commission added that Italy is taking “steps towards better enforcement of EU measures” and it urged Italy “to promptly comply with the judgment and increase efforts to stop the spreading of the disease.”

On Wednesday, Italy’s new agriculture minister, Teresa Bellanova, said she would make fighting Xylella a priority, according to ANSA, an Italian news agency.

Bellanova is among a number of new ministers coming into office as part of a new coalition government. The Italian Ministry of Agriculture did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Xylella first came to the attention of Europe in 2013 when scientists in Puglia announced they believed it was killing olive trees in an area near the tourist town of Gallipoli.

After that, the European Commission demanded Italy take drastic measures to stop the disease’s spread.

The commission ordered that infected trees and all other trees in a 100-meter (328-feet) radius around infected trees be cut down.

Initially, Italian authorities complied and they sent in crews to raze infected areas. But those measures outraged olive farmers and the public, sparking protests, lawsuits and even a criminal probe into allegations that scientists were to blame for introducing the bacterium to Puglia and causing its spread.

Italy argued that the criminal probe prevented it from carrying out orders to cut down trees. It also said it was unable to cut down trees because tree owners were hard to find, and further cited the sheer size of many olive trees as a reason for not razing them.

But the court rejected those arguments and said Italy had the power and duty to cut down the trees regardless of the obstacles.

The ruling did not touch on the preliminary findings of the criminal probe by Italian authorities.

In May, Italian prosecutors closed an initial probe against 10 biologists, laboratory workers and government officials without bringing charges. Investigators said they found authorities were aware that olive trees were dying with symptoms of Xylella as early as 2004 instead of 2013.

In Puglia, the outbreak is catastrophic: Since 2013, tens of thousands of olive trees have died or are dying. The disease has spread about 50 miles north from where it was discovered, and left in its wake devastated olive farmers and dead ancient olive trees.

The bacteria invade a tree’s sap system and cut off its ability to absorb water. In Italy, it is carried from tree to tree by common springtime bugs that feed on sap.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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