A Bacterium Destroys Olive Trees in Southern Italy

A Bacterium Destroys Olive Trees in Southern Italy

A plague never seen in Europe and affects one million trees especially olive trees.

ITALY – For three years, the olive trees of the Italian province of Lecce in the Apulia region, dry out and die.  This is as a result of a bacterium never seen before in Europe.  They begin drying the leaves, then branches and finally the whole tree withers and dies. Those that suffer most are the olive trees.  Already in 2014 the authorities called it an epidemic and there are about one million olive trees affected.

The matter is extremely serious because this region of southern Italy is the largest producer of olive oil in a country which produces around 20% of olives consumed worldwide.

Italy is the second largest producer of olive oil, only behind Spain.  In Apulia, a rural area hit by the economic crisis, more than 50,000 entrepreneurs are engaged in olive growing.  Its production has been referred to as “catastrophic” by the regional government as it affects the global oil market.

This disease that attacks the olive trees poses the greatest risk at European level for the health of these trees.  Any outbreak may affect other plantations.

In 2013, agricultural technicians found the Xylella fastidiosa bacteria in the Apulia olive trees, but there was no scientific evidence that it was the culprit. Fear of the epidemic led to the European authorities to allocat a fund of 13 million Euros to investigate the causes of the disease and provide solutions.

The first step was to order mass slaughter of trees affected by the outbreak and then initiate investigations to determine the cause of the problem.

After two years of study, researchers at the National Council of Italian Research and the University of Bari, in collaboration with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), found the cause of the mass death of Olives: it is the strain CoDiRo of the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa.  A bacterium never known before in Europe and North and South America, where it affects different crops of different economic importance such as citrus, vines or coffee.

“For the first time has been demonstrated cause and effect relationship between bacteria Xylella fastidiosa and disease Apulian olive trees,” said the director of Animal and Plant Health EFSA, Giuseppe Stancanelli.  The finding is “an important step” that will “adequately assess the risk of the epidemic,” added the scientist.

The continuous risk

The researchers came to this conclusion after checking that the olive plants under artificial inoculation of this bacteria in greenhouse showed, after a time between 12 to 14 months, showed the same symptoms as the trees that were planted in the field.  The problem, however, does not end here.  Stancanelli noted that “the risk continues, not reduced, but increased awareness of the problem.”  From now on, it is necessary to “continue studying to find solutions.”  Meanwhile, they are still continuing banning the trade of plants from Lecce because, although the spread by insects is slow, the trade of plant may lead to epidemic which could spread rapidly.

Investigations to find a solution to this problem will continue for another decade.  Although the cause is localized, it is now necessary to find a solution.  It’s what they expect farmers and producers of olive oil, which still have not recovered from the nightmare of 2014 where production was reduced by 37% leading to record low of 300,000 tons.


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