ALCALALÍ, Spain (CN) — A lethal Central American plant disease devastating olive trees in southern Italy is now killing almond trees in southern Spain, a serious development for an outbreak threatening Europe's crops.
The rugged terrain of Alicante province is the tragic stage for a chain of events similar to what's happening in southern Italy's Puglia region, where tens of thousands of olive trees are dying from an infection by the Xylella fastidiosa bacterium. There is no cure for the disease, which is known in the United States as Pierce's disease.
Almond trees mysteriously started to show signs of sickness several years ago and in 2017 scientists declared they had identified the cause as Xylella fastidiosa.
Since then, about 521 square miles in Alicante have been designated as affected. To contain the outbreak, the European Union is that demanding that infected trees and other trees within a 320-foot radius be cut down. So far, about 1,300 sick almond trees and thousands of surrounding trees have been cut down.
Spain is the world's second-biggest almond producer, after the United States. Alicante's big fat almonds are highly valued as nuts to eat and are used in a variety of dishes. They also end up in Spain's Christmas nougat confection known as turrón and are made into a sweet milk.
On a recent summer morning, Elias Andres, a 42-year-old almond farmer and president of a farmers' cooperative, walked over a terraced field where he had been growing almonds until all the trees were cut down this year due to Xylella.
“You can see the empty field, and before there were 300 almond trees — adults, maybe 20, 30 years old, in maximum production — and now there's nothing here,” he said. Next to him was another almond farmer, Faustino Mestre.
Alcalalí is known for its almonds, and in late winter, when almond trees are covered in gorgeous blossoms, the town fills up with nature lovers eager to soak up the resplendent show.
Even though Andres’ trees appeared healthy, some were diagnosed as sick with Xylella. Tree owners who object to felling of trees face hefty fines.
“They send you a letter telling you they are going to come and cut your trees,” he said, speaking in English. “At the moment, there's nothing we can do.”
Mestre too faced losing lots of his trees after he got a letter telling him he had a sick tree. “We didn't know it was a sick tree,” he said.
The two farmers paced over the empty field as a cacophony of high-pitched insects pierced the summer air on a hillside in the Valle de Pop, a picturesque broad valley with vineyards, olive trees and lots of almond orchards.
Xylella is considered one of Europe's biggest agricultural threats, with the potential of widespread devastation. The pathogen this year was found in two decorative olive trees in mainland France and it previously had been found on Spain's Balearic islands and on Corsica. It's also been found in Italy's Tuscany region and in Portugal.
Its spread in Europe is being closely monitored and tracked. It is believed that Xylella entered Europe through importation of exotic plants. The bacterium is spread by sap-feeding bugs. It restricts a plant's ability to absorb water, causing leaves to turn brown and the tree to die.