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Disease threatens Italy’s once booming olive oil industry

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.

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  • Helen Mirren:

    As you can see we've got some beautiful, beautiful old trees.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Olive trees have sustained locals in the southern Italian region of Puglia for centuries.

  • Helen Mirren:

    Trees I would imagine they're probably 4, 500 years old.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    They also inspire part-timers like actor Helen Mirren. Olive trees define the landscape outside her summer home.

  • Helen Mirren:

    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!"

  • Christopher Livesay:

    They brought you here?

  • Helen Mirren:

    Oh, absolutely. When I first saw these trees, I was absolutely blown away.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    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.

  • Helen Mirren:

    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.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    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.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    So what is this?

  • Christopher Livesay:

    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.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    So the bacteria is kind of choking these trees?

  • Maria Saponari:

    Yes, exactly.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    From their water.

  • Maria Saponari:

    Yes exactly.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    But it can't spread on its own.

  • Maria Saponari:

    So, I'm removing the head,

  • Christopher Livesay:

    You're decapitating the spittlebug?

  • Maria Saponari:

    Exactly, because if they are carrying the bacterium, this will be in the head of the insect.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    It's called a spittlebug. And it feeds on olive tree tissue.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    This tiny little bug is responsible for spreading this plague.

  • Maria Saponari:

    Without the insect, the bacterium cannot move from one plant to another plant.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    The spittlebug can carry the disease for hundreds of yards every season, says scientist Donato Boccia.

  • Donato Boccia:

    Then there is some jump: a couple kilometer, three kilometer, then another outbreak start to show up.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    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.

  • Enzo Manni:

    These are the trees of my father, and my grandfather.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Farms like Enzo Manni's.

  • Enzo Manni:

    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.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    What about your children and future generations in your family?.

  • Enzo Manni:

    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.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Manni and his son, Federico, take me to their shuttered olive mill.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    So you used to keep olives in here?

  • Federico Manni:

    Yes, our first olive oil mills.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    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.

  • Federico Manni:

    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.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Wait a minute. You've gone from 500 oil mills to just 15?

  • Federico Manni:

    Just 15. We have this collapse, it's not a reduction. It's a collapse. I think we go to zero.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    When?

  • Federico Manni:

    I think also in one, two years. Or maybe less.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    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.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    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.

  • Donato Boccia:

    Climate change unfortunately has an impact. Because climate change is increasing the area with high risk of establishment of xylella.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    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.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    And why is that dangerous?

  • Donato Boccia:

    Cicadas are much better flyers. Cicadas can fly for hundreds of meters.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    And that's much further than the spittlebug?

  • Donato Boccia:

    Much, much further than the spittlebug.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    If this is a war against an epidemic, who's winning the war?

  • Donato Boccia:

    Well, so far, the bacterium won several battles. But the war, one battle is not the war.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    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.

  • Maria Saponari:

    Then we can check if this DNA contains xylella or not.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    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.

  • Helen Mirren:

    In this orchard we have grafted all the trees with a species called lecino that is more resistant to xylella.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Can you show me?

  • Helen Mirren:

    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.

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