Which View

Do you treasure good olive oil as I do? Yesterday on the ride from Lecce to Roca Vecchio, I saw terrible evidence of a problem for the olive trees here in Pulglia, a region in Southern Italy bordering the Adriatic Sea to the east, the Ionian Sea to the west. More than a third of America’s olive oil comes from Italy, and Puglia produces about 40 percent of all of Italy’s oil.  Olive trees don’t just dot the landscape in Puglia, Italy; they define it.  They are so important in the heel of Italy’s boot, that locals call them “cultural heritage”. What is worrying olive growers here is a disease that’s killing olive trees by the millions. And there’s a huge argument going on about how to stop it.

Authorities in the south-eastern Puglia region pursue a zero-tolerance policy to combat the spread of a blight they fear could ruin the local olive oil industry, one of the largest in Europe. Since 2015, any olive tree within 100 metres of one affected by Xylella fastidiosa, a pathogen that inhibits the movement of water and nutrients in woody plants, has to be uprooted, whether it is sick or not.

Eleven million olive trees classified as being in an infected area could be uprooted. Faced with angry farmers who say the strategy is unjust and threatens their livelihoods, scientists are trying to find another way. An independent group of researchers working in Puglia believe other factors are causing desiccation in the region’s trees, and that the most effective way of combating it lies in a natural remedy used by generations of local farmers.

“Recent studies discovered that Xylella is likely to have been in Puglia for some time and that most plants are healthy hosts,” said Dr Margherita D’Amico, head of a team of bacteria experts seeking a cure. “Xylella can be one of the factors that causes decline in trees that are already debilitated by a series of other issues such as fungi, poor soil, and neglect, which must be addressed in ways other than felling.” She said the majority of the scientists proposing dramatic and damaging solutions to the crisis were virologists, rather than plant pathologists like her and her colleagues. “They are demanding that farmers apply the same protocols one would to the spread of a virus: uprooting all infected plants, control of the vector insect, and use of resistant plants. But Xylella is a bacterium, not a virus.”

Giovanni Martelli, a plant virologist at the University of Bari, who has conducted studies for the authorities and supports uprooting, said: “People who claim that Xylella can be treated with natural remedies are not right. There is no cure for Xylella. The immediate removal of infected trees and surrounding healthy trees is an indispensable measure to block the spread.” But Professor Marco Scortichini, a bacteriologist from the University of Campania in Caserta, near Naples, who has conducted several studies of Xylella, says, “Natural remedies work. The only thing to do when a bacterium has spread is to find a way to live with it and strengthen trees so they are less vulnerable.’’

Which view sees the picture as whole and interrelated rather than seeing only separate parts? The olive trees of Puglia are experiencing an actual physical crisis, but it is also a metaphor for how to see and solve other crises on our beautiful spinning planet home. It is a natural and wholistic approach that offers hope to farmers and to those of us who love olive oil and our earth. The olive tree is one of the most beloved, sacred trees, traditionally a symbol of peace and friendship. Tanti auguri to Puglias’ millions of olive trees.

2 Responses to “Which View

  • I sometimes picture homes in Italy having a backyard olive tree, part of each family’s cultural heritage, almost like a “pet.” Wondering if some of them have pet names. In Morocco they sell fresh olive oil at the side of the road.

  • I like the way you laid out the differing views, Susa. You are such a student of life. Maybe we’ll talk soon.

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