Europe Worries as Bacteria Wipe Out Ancient Italian Olive Trees

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. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service) 

CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — Italian biologists, laboratory workers and government officials under investigation for failing to stop the early spread of an incurable and catastrophic plant infection from Central America that is killing tens of thousands of olive trees in southern Italy will not face criminal charges, but the scientific investigation continues.

In May, Italian prosecutors in Lecce closed a 3½-year-long preliminary investigation into how the deadly bacterium known as Xylella fastidiosa arrived and then spread throughout Puglia. (In America it’s also responsible for the Pierce’s disease attacking California’s vineyards.) The bacterium, called by some the “ebola of olive trees,” threatens to infect the rest of Europe.

Puglia is a gorgeous region known for its food and beaches, and its old and productive olive trees. The region makes up the sweeping boot-heel of the Italian peninsula. It is Italy’s biggest, though overlooked, olive oil producer, with much of that production coming from the area devastated by Xylella.

The investigation into Xylella is far from over.

The Lecce prosecutors transferred their findings to colleagues in Bari, Puglia’s capital city, who now will examine how European Union and Italian funds were used to fight the disease.

This preliminary criminal investigation grew out of a chorus of allegations that Italian authorities mishandled the response to the outbreak of Xylella fastidiosa, whose presence in Europe was announced in October 2013.

The criminal investigation of scientists and officials leading efforts to combat Xylella has been heavily criticized by many in the scientific community, who accuse the justice system of overstepping its boundaries, simplfying scientific facts, impeding scientific research and slowing efforts to contain the disease.

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 fear is that a path of death will march across the Mediterranean Sea basin, wiping out olive trees and one of Europe’s most precious resources — its beloved olive oil. Last year, the gram-negative bacterium was found in olive trees near Madrid.

It’s not just Europe at risk. Scientists warn that Xylella poses a major risk to crops worldwide. Scientists say they do not have a cure for the bacterium.

In a scenario where the bacteria kill trees across Europe, it would be a disaster on a scale of the Phylloxera outbreak in the 1800s which wiped out Europe’s vineyards. Both the Phylloxera pest and Xylella are native to the Americas.

So far, it seems that wherever this plant pathogen goes the story is the same: Within months of infection, the elongated leaves on an evergreen olive turn weirdly brown and the tree begins to die. The bacteria invade a tree’s sap system. In Italy, it is carried from tree to tree by common springtime bugs that feed on sap.

In 2015, prosecutors opened a criminal probe into 10 people, including leading scientists at the University of Bari and a commander of the Italian forestry corps overseeing efforts to stop the outbreak.

Opening the probe added more fuel to seething outrage in Puglia among farmers, activists and environmentalists who were lashing out at orders to extirpate olive trees.

Allegations flew that bad actors were behind the catastrophe; it has become commonplace to hear farmers and environmentalists in Puglia link the outbreak to plots by pesticide makers or unscrupulous developers seeking to replace olive orchards with golf courses and vacation resorts.

The contents of prosecutors’ report likely will only bolster the wild speculation.

“The report contains heavy accusations against researchers and regional officials: a code of silence, economic interests, scientific slovenliness,” wrote Il Fatto Quotidiano, a left-wing newspaper, in describing the case.

The prosecutor’s office did not immediately reply to a request for comment from Courthouse News on Wednesday.

In declining to file charges, prosecutors in Lecce said carabinieri investigators uncovered “irregularities, carelessness and misconduct.” But under the high legal standards adopted for the case, similar to those used for medical responsibility, prosecutors said there was not enough evidence to file charges.

Still, they said the investigators were met with falsehoods and a wall of silence, or in their words, omertà, an expression used to describe the code of silence practiced by the Mafia.

This 2017 photo shows an infected olive tree with an official notice saying the tree is part of an inquiry into a plant disease killing olive trees in southern Italy’s Puglia region. (Photo by CAIN BURDEAU/Courthouse News Service)

Instead of 2013, investigators found that authorities were aware that olive trees were dying with symptoms of Xylella as early as 2004.

One unnamed agricultural official told investigators that Antonio Guario, one of those under investigation and the former director of the Regional Plant Health Observatory of Bari, said in 2006 that tests had confirmed Xylella was in Puglia’s olive trees.

Investigators also revealed that researchers brought two samples of Xylella from Belgium and Holland in 2010, purportedly to conduct research on methods for combating an eventual Xylella outbreak in olive trees. But investigators found the paperwork related to the importation of those Xylella samples missing or incorrect.

Then in 2010 and 2011 researchers connected to Xylella studies were given special permission to use banned pesticides made by the chemical corporations BASF and Monsanto at experimental sites where they were doing research on Xylella in olives. The prosecutors said investigators met “insuperable omertà” in seeking information about those experiments.

In 2013, when the outbreak was declared, a special Monsanto-BASF product was sold in large quantities in Puglia to fight the bacteria’s spread, investigators said. The investigators said the heavy use of such hazardous chemicals may have weakened trees and worsened the outbreak.

Investigators also called into question emails they found between researchers at the Regional Plant Health Observatory of Bari. Prosecutors described the emails as evidence of “incredible slovenliness” and a “preponderance of economic interests” in seeking to steer funding to fight the disease toward the University of Bari. Much of the anti-Xylella work has been led by that university.

Prosecutors also said there remains no scientific clarity about the cause of the sickness and how to fight it. They said efforts to contain the outbreak were disjointed, delayed and done without proper transparency.

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

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