Puglia’s Gold: A look at the olive oil crisis

Puglia’s Gold: A look at the olive oil crisis

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The Olive Sea of Salento

We’re standing on a second floor patio near the town of Guagnano looking out over a sea of olive trees. Guagnano, in the north of the Salento peninsula of Italy’s Puglia region, grows olive trees in waves. Every few miles there is a sea break of grape vines.

Later that evening we’ve sat for dinner at the brand new Bros. restaurant in the old-town center of Lecce. After the aperitivo we’re offered durum-wheat bread with emulsified olive oil. Puglia is also known for its bread. The two offer a perfect marriage – the almost-rustic nuttiness of the durum wheat spread with the oil’s fine balance of bitter, sweet and peppery; bread and oil each an integral aspect of the peninsula’s food-culture, heritage, and economy.

Puglia produces around 40% of Italy’s olive oil. The region includes over 60 million olive trees. It serves too as one of the country’s economic leaders in olive oil export (as well as for its almost-rustic brand of wheat). In Salento, the southern half of Puglia, small home farms of olive trees are a family’s livelihood.

100 year old olive trees

100-year old olive trees in Salento

Known as Puglia’s gold, the olive oil industry includes a heritage dating back millennia. A half-million trees in the region are over 100-years old, and live trees still producing fruit have been carbon-dated to over 1000 years. Near the town of Ostuni the oldest tree of Puglia stands with a girth of 15 meters, an irreplaceable vessel of cultural history.

In Salento, these elder trees are regarded with a kind of reverential magic. The size and shape of their trunks prove so dramatic it is believed if you stare into the curves of their bark you’ll eventually see signs of your future, like an arborist’s version of reading tea leaves.

We finish dinner. The next day we wake and drive south to the tip of Salento.

Driving the Salento peninsula olive groves wash by in wave after wave of green. Suddenly the Ionian Sea appears rich blue on the right. We are in the southern half of Salento. The olive groves begin to thin.

The Rise of a Crisis

Though the tip of Salento has long served as one of the concentrations of family grower-producers of olive oil for the region, today the farmers are struggling. In 2013 a strange illness first appeared in the trees. Since, they have continued to die.

As a result, the landscape of southern Salento has changed. Areas once floating in green are now barren, scarred by the sharp cut remains of trees that couldn’t be saved by aggressive pruning.

In a neighborhood of small family farms we pull over the car. The trees along both sides of the road are dead. In such areas families have lost tens of thousands of dollars in annual income. Slowly the farmers are excavating the dried up trees to use for wood, or simply burning them. In a region dominated by agriculture, farmers struggle to find new sources of income. The loss of industry affects the overall economy, also impacting the livelihood of those not growing olive trees.

Olive trees affected by leaf scorch

olive trees in Salento struck with leaf scorch

When the crisis appeared in 2013 farmers began to notice that the outer leaves of their trees were suddenly turning brown. Branches would turn so quickly the leaves and fruit would fail to fall as plants do for autumn. Instead, the leaf scorch, as it is called, marks the tree permanently. Initially farmers attempted to prune scorched branches to save the tree but illness would spread.

A New Illness

What was discovered was a bacterium never before found in Europe. Scorched trees consistently test positive for Xylella fastidiosa, also the cause of Pierce’s disease in grapevines. The bacterium in the olive trees of Salento is identical to a strain of Xylella with its origins in Costa Rica. As a result, it is believed ornamental coffee trees imported to Europe without proper quarantine invited the illness. Once infected, Xylella forms a sticky mucus inside the tree’s lymph system blocking the flow of liquid through the tree. Scorched trees essentially die of a kind of fast dehydration that starts in the branches, then takes over the entire tree in an illness called Olive Quick Decline Syndrome.

Though Salento olive trees showed the first known outbreak of Xylella in Europe, since the Salento outbreak the bacterium has also been found in almond trees and ornamental plants in Salento, in mulberry on Corsica, and ornamentals in mainland France. The strain in France differs from that in Salento and neither matches the one we know infects grapevines.

The neighborhood where we pull over is in the area of Salento where symptoms of the olive crisis first appeared. If you know where to look, it is still possible to purchase olive oil made from groves in this part of Salento, though production is reduced.

It is difficult to estimate the disease’s impact on overall olive oil production in the region due to the variable nature of olive harvests. Salento has lost potential volume from affected trees, but even so, the 2015-16 harvest overall is better than the disasterous 2014-15 vintage. Due to a combination of factors, including weather and more normal pests, yields in last year’s harvest were extremely low. Still, it was estimated that the Xylella outbreak would cost the region more than $225 million in 2015 alone. In areas, like this neighborhood, hardest hit by the outbreak many family farmers have permanently lost their crop.

Slightly north, we stop to visit a grove of 100-year old trees. Walking the grove it is clear how the trees gained a reputation as soothsayers. The trunks stand twisted, and braided in decades of growth. The trees also show signs of leaf scorch.

The caverns left by olive trees removed

a grove of caverns where infected olive trees were pulled,
in the distance the 100-year old trees have leaf scorch

Beside the old trees a grove of caverns appears, massive holes left in the ground from 100-year old trees affected by Xylella and pulled out in an attempt to save their neighbors.

The Science Crisis

In another grove trees are hung with white flags and political posters. Graffiti reads “Xylella Mafia,” an allusion to local mistrust of the science behind the illness, and of the government’s handling of the situation. Many believe the olive decline to be the result of a conspiracy launched to benefit the olive oil industries of other countries. As olive oil supply has reduced, the global price of olive oil has increased but especially in region’s unaffected by the Xylella crisis. Some even believe scientists caused the illness by design.

Last month local officials blocked the eradication of affected trees while also placing the scientists working to fight Xylella under investigation. They are accused of spreading the disease.

The EU continues to demand trees be pulled, fearful the illness could spread across Europe. Xylella in the form of Pierce’s disease has been studied for over 100 years. Even so, today the only known solution is to remove affected plants.

Locals dependent on olives for livelihood as well as millennia of cultural history and identity have resisted the EU’s demands. Puglia’s olive oil industry is among the oldest arborist traditions on the planet. Environmental activists and some farmers have fought to preserve the 100-year old groves, afraid that the trees will be pulled and then a cure found, the loss of a region’s cultural legacy. The anti-science activism has angered still others who believe the illness could have been stopped if affected trees had been pulled as originally planned.

a pesticide zone in Salento

an experimental pesticide-use olive grove in Salento

In the meantime, some farmers at the Xylella boundary are experimenting with heavy pesticides in an attempt to kill the bugs that serve as a primary vector for the spread of Xylella. Food scientists fear such chemicals work against one of the ultimate goals of saving the trees by contaminating the resulting oil with pesticides. The bacterium itself does not affect the fruit. At the same time organic farmers are exploring other measures.

Scientists are working to develop new technologies. Researchers working on Pierce’s disease in the United States have been experimenting with the use of phages, anti-bacterial viruses they introduce to diseased vines to fight infection. Some suggest the approach could be developed for trees as well. So far attempts have been unsuccessful.

We return to Lecce to rest before departing the next day. In the morning we are handed a gift. One of Salento’s top arborists has brought each of us a bottle of olive oil. It is oil, he explains, made from the remaining trees at the tip of Salento.

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To read more about the olive oil crisis in Salento, check out this article in the New York Times from spring of 2015: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/12/world/europe/fear-of-ruin-as-disease-takes-hold-of-italys-olive-trees.html?_r=0.

Cathy Huyghe gives a photographic view of the region’s olive trees along with information about the current situation at Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/cathyhuyghe/2016/01/14/olive-trees-in-crisis-disease-impacts-southern-italy-photo-essay/#5edf949b279351064a342793

Or you can keep up with international news regarding the situation via the Xylella news feed at olive oil times: http://www.oliveoiltimes.com/tag/xylella-fastidiosa?page=9

You can keep an eye on the crisis via Cantele winery’s US blog here: http://canteleusa.com/?s=xylella&submit=Search The updates available here often look at perspectives from those local to Salento.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Elaine, you write wonderfully and with great empathy. This is such a good exploration of this subject. It deserves much more in depth reporting and exploration by you. The crisis in Italian Olive Oil is so disheartening from disease to magic infiltration. Thanks for writing this.
    Tom…

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