Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
More than a third of olive oil in the U.S. comes from Italy, which has kept a longstanding reputation for quality. But the quantity of olive oil made in the south of Italy has been in sharp decline. A disease in the region of Puglia has been attacking olive trees, decimating the industry and causing Italy to import olive oil for the first time. Special correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.
As you can see we've got some beautiful, beautiful old trees.
Olive trees have sustained locals in the southern Italian region of Puglia for centuries.
Trees I would imagine they're probably 4, 500 years old.
They also inspire part-timers like actor Helen Mirren. Olive trees define the landscape outside her summer home.
They're like powerful and imposing. And you just feel their history and you think, "Oh my god, this tree was here when Henry VIII was alive. Elizabeth I!"
They brought you here?
Oh, absolutely. When I first saw these trees, I was absolutely blown away.
But now, Puglia's olive trees are at risk from an epidemic disease — Xylella Fastidiosa — sweeping through the region. And Mirren is sounding the alarm.
Now it's really, really on the move, and it's terrifying. So yes it basically dries the tree from the inside out. It just looks so sad, doesn't it? And this is what the whole landscape might end up looking like, populated by ghosts of history.
Xylella Fastidiosa causes leaves to turn brown and brittle around the edges. Eventually, whole orchards shrivel and die. The disease has spread across the Salento region, the heel of Italy's boot at the rate of 20 miles per year, and now covers 3,000 square miles. When it first surfaced in 2013, farmers were bewildered. Was it a fungus? A result of climate change? And how bad could it get? To find out, we've come to Italy's National Research Center in Puglia.
So what is this?
It was here that Maria Saponari and other scientists first identified the outbreak six years ago as a bacteria. It preys on the tree's lymph, which provides water and nutrients to its leaves.
So the bacteria is kind of choking these trees?
From their water.
But it can't spread on its own.
So, I'm removing the head,
You're decapitating the spittlebug?
Exactly, because if they are carrying the bacterium, this will be in the head of the insect.
It's called a spittlebug. And it feeds on olive tree tissue.
This tiny little bug is responsible for spreading this plague.
Without the insect, the bacterium cannot move from one plant to another plant.
The spittlebug can carry the disease for hundreds of yards every season, says scientist Donato Boccia.
Then there is some jump: a couple kilometer, three kilometer, then another outbreak start to show up.
So far, some 25 million trees are either dead or doomed, he says. That's meant curtains for thousands of family farms that have been here for generations.
These are the trees of my father, and my grandfather.
Farms like Enzo Manni's.
For me it was a joy to come here with my wife and kids when they were little and growing up. I spent my childhood here, during the harvest schools let students out so they could help pick olives. The small kids like us would climb the tall branches to get the last olives. It was a lot of fun.
What about your children and future generations in your family?.
It hurts my heart to think about that. Because it's as if I didn't do everything in my power to allow them to enjoy the same beauty.
Manni and his son, Federico, take me to their shuttered olive mill.
So you used to keep olives in here?
Yes, our first olive oil mills.
Today, it's little more than a warehouse for rusty equipment. One of hundreds of mills that have closed in the surrounding Salento area, the part of Puglia hit hardest by the outbreak.
We had in the past 500 olive oil mills in the Salento area. Now in the Province of Lecce, we have not more than 15 olive oil mills.
Wait a minute. You've gone from 500 oil mills to just 15?
Just 15. We have this collapse, it's not a reduction. It's a collapse. I think we go to zero.
I think also in one, two years. Or maybe less.
But the Manni family isn't going down without a fight. They run a co-op that helps farmers pool resources, and explore new crops that aren't afflicted by the bacteria.
So you're processing potatoes here? In time, he hopes that farmers will also embrace grape cultivation for wine. That, or potatoes, and other tubers. It will require uprooting and burning millions of dead and diseased trees in abandoned groves like this one. To make matters worse, the climate in the Mediterranean is getting warmer as xylella spreads.
Climate change unfortunately has an impact. Because climate change is increasing the area with high risk of establishment of xylella.
That's because it makes the local habitat more prone to spittlebug reproduction. And the disease is not limited to southern Italy. Evidence of it has been discovered in Spain, France, Portugal, and parts of the Middle East. And spittlebugs might not be the only problem. Scientists are studying worrisome signs that cicadas, like those chirping around us, might also be carriers.
And why is that dangerous?
Cicadas are much better flyers. Cicadas can fly for hundreds of meters.
And that's much further than the spittlebug?
Much, much further than the spittlebug.
If this is a war against an epidemic, who's winning the war?
Well, so far, the bacterium won several battles. But the war, one battle is not the war.
One reason to hope, Boccia says, is that the disease may be reaching its natural limitations. Even with a warming climate, it still gets cooler farther north, something the spittlebug and disease don't like. Another is that while the government was initially slow to act, it has now chopped down thousands of trees, creating a buffer zone to prevent further contagion. And scientists are working around the clock, studying the disease, searching for a cure.
Then we can check if this DNA contains xylella or not.
One promising lead: grafting. Scientists have identified two species of olive tree that appear to be resistant to xyellela. Taking donor bark from a resistant tree, farmers attach it to an afflicted trunk, and, if successful, effectively bring the tree back to life.
In this orchard we have grafted all the trees with a species called lecino that is more resistant to xylella.
Can you show me?
Yes! Yes, absolutely. I can see one right here, look. This is the grafting. Oh look this one's growing! Look! Oh my god, that's the first one I've seen growing, that's fantastic! Oh I must call them up and tell them. That's amazing! This is the future of this tree. If this tree is to have a future, there it is. But, you know, whether the trees will be able to sustain this kind of new growth as the rest of it dies back is a question, and it's a question, really at the moment, as far as I can make out, nobody knows the answer to.
Watch the Full Episode
Christopher Livesay is a foreign correspondent and producer based in Rome.
Alessandro Pavone is a freelance videographer and producer.
Support Provided By:
Additional Support Provided By: