The olive trees are dying in the Salento region of Italy, the picturesque heel of the Italian peninsula.
A new disease called Olive Quick Decline Syndrome (OQDS) is ravaging olive groves that date back to Roman times and before, some with 2000-year-old trees. Leaves wither as is scorched by fire, twigs and branches die back, and the trees quickly die.
Two theories have emerged to explain this calamity, two stories. Each exemplifies a more general relationship between humans and the material world, with consequences far beyond Italian olive trees.
The first and dominant theory says that OQDS is caused by a bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, which was introduced via an infected oleander from Costa Rica. Fortunately (according to this narrative), the authorities acted quickly by declaring a state of emergency, assigning European Commission funds to support research and eradication, and designating infected zones, buffer zones, and contagion-free zones. An extraordinary commissioner was appointed to enforce measures to prevent the contagion from spreading. Farmers were required to uproot all infected trees or face a 3000 penalty; all trees within 100 meters of an infected tree are to be cut down, entailing the destruction of entire groves. According to local activists, at present, some one-million trees are slated for destruction.
Not to worry – science has come to save the day. Researchers have developed a biopatented tree, the F-17, the so-called “Favolosa” – that is permitted to be replanted in infected areas. In contrast to traditional biodiverse olive groves with centuries-old or millennia-old trees, these are grown in superintensive industrially farmed hedges of small trees, with extensive use of pesticides.
The Xylella theory names insects such as the meadow spittlebug as the transmission vectors for the bacteria; accordingly, authorities are pushing for the elimination of all ground vegetation around the olive trees to deprive the insects of habitat, as well as the heavy use of insecticides. The model is a monoculture of olive trees on bare soil. Maybe a few of the majestic 2000-year-old trees can be preserved for tourism.
A second theory has been advanced by Margherita Ciervo of the University of Foggia, among other researchers. It says that Xylella infection is a symptom, and not a cause, of OQDS, and that it may not even be an exogenous species. It opportunistically breaks out in the presence of what these researchers name as the deeper causes: primarily, the degradation of soil due to poor agricultural practices. For example, even in older groves, growers in recent years have made heavy use of glyphosate and other herbicides to remove ground-cover to allow easier harvesting. The dead, compacted soil no longer harbors the microbiota that contribute to the trees’ resistance to fungi and bacteria (some believe that fungi are actually the main immediate culprit, not Xylella). Water absorption is also diminished, making the trees more susceptible to drought. Ciervo blames the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate in particular. Quoting a 2009 paper by Johal & Huber in the European Journal of Agronomy, she writes:
“various diseases caused by X. fastidiosa are referred to as ‘emerging’ or ‘reemerging’ diseases as glyphosate weed management programs for their respective crops have intensified. These diseases (Pierce’s disease of grapevine, plum scorch, almond scorch, citrus variegated chlorosis, coffee blight, citrus blight, alfalfa dwarf, pecan decline, etc.) are characterized by a loss of vigor, slow decline, micronutrient deficiency, and reduced productivity. The pathogen is an endophytic bacterium that colonizes xylem tissues and restricts nutrient translocation when plants are stressed […] Glyphosate stimulation of fungal growth and enhanced virulence of pathogens such as Fusarium, Gaeumannomyces, Phytophthora, Pythium, and Xylella can have serious consequences for sustainable production of a wide range of susceptible crops and lead to the functional loss of genetic resistance.
To establish her hypothesis that OQDS affects trees weakened by pesticide poisoning, Ciervo surveyed the distribution of the syndrome and correlated it with the prevalence of organically cultivated land, confirming that the more organic agriculture there is in an area, the less affected it is by OQDS. Her finding confirms the experiences of organic farmers in the region who have revived their trees or avoided contagion altogether, as vividly displayed in this video from an Italian farmer comparing his organic groves to the chemically-farmed groves of his neighbor.
Which of these two theories is true? Obviously I am partial to the latter theory, but in fact, careful consideration shows they are not entirely contradictory. It depends on the context and on what is taken for granted. In the context of chemical-intensive conventional olive production, Xylella is indeed a serious threat. If we take for granted the continuation of that system of agriculture, then the measures the authorities have implemented are necessary. They need be neither corrupt nor stupid to pursue the program of pesticides and eradication. The OQDS, therefore, opens up the larger question of what kind of agricultural system do we want to promote.
The solutions implemented by local organic growers, such as mineral supplementation, microbiome restoration, proper pruning, and the maintenance of biodiverse plant and animal ecosystems in olive groves, have in common a glaring problem. They are economically inefficient in the context of the global market. Farmers using these methods will never be able to compete in conventional commodity markets against industrial plantations.
A new government has come into power in Italy with the wherewithal to halt the eradication campaign and adopt policies based on the deeper understanding outlined above. However, let us not underestimate the difficulty of doing so. Italian olive oil production was in crisis well before the OQDS outbreak. Low-cost North African plantations, in many cases run by large multinational corporations, have already made traditional Italian production uneconomic. According to journalist Petra Reski, it was, in part, to compete against the North African plantations, which use precisely the aforementioned water-intensive, chemical-intensive monocrop hedges of small trees replanted every 15 years, that Italian growers began using glyphosate in the first place.
The deeper context here is the commodification and globalization of agriculture – a trend which the Italian Five Star Movement, however radical, has limited power to reverse on its own. The new government can, however, listen to the experiences of organic farmers and researchers like Margherita Ciervo and implement policies that may serve a more general transition to sustainable and regenerative agriculture, and preserve the cultural/ecological treasure that is Italy’s ancient olive groves. Let me suggest a policy program to accomplish this:
(1) First, immediately halt the eradication and pesticide campaign, which exacerbates the conditions that make Xylella a problem.
(2) Transition Italian olive production to a fully organic system and create a ‘brand identity” that associates Italian olive oil with the flavor, health, and ecological advantages of mature trees on healthy land. (Oil from these trees has superior flavor and twice the polyphenols of industrially cultivated olive oil.)
(3) Shift agricultural subsidies to support ecological olive cultivation, perhaps by implementing ecosystem services payments to farmers in recognition of the public benefits of water-conserving, environmentally benign traditional organic cultivation.
(4) Work toward international agreements to restrict unsustainable, ecologically disruptive, water-hogging agricultural practices in olive cultivation and beyond, so as to level the playing field for sustainable producers.
Currently, there is considerable momentum in the other direction. Powerful interests have a lot to gain from the eradication campaign, which opens land to development of resorts, golf courses, etc. that had been protected due to the presence of historic trees. The pesticide companies, university agronomy departments, and biopatent holders also benefit. There is little institutional support for research into alternative theories, a prospect made even more difficult because infected tree parts are considered biohazards and are only permitted to be tested at a single designated laboratory representing the mainstream position.
Facing powerful institutions and cut off from the possibility of scientific confirmation of their viewpoint, activists and farmers seeking to preserve the trees are ridiculed in the media with terms like “magicians,” “superstitious,” and “gurus.” But it is not that they are fundamentally unscientific; it is that the science that could support them lacks the funding and institutional support to develop.
The Xylella hypothesis sits comfortably with the interests of multinational agribusiness and validates current trends toward the hyper-industrialization of agriculture. It also conforms to more general intellectual and political habits of our civilization. It is linear and reductionistic, seeking a single cause rather than understanding reality as a complex system. It exemplifies the find-an-enemy approach to problem-solving that is always looking for something to control, something to imprison, or something to kill. I find in the whole affair an echo of European anxiety about immigration: a rush to blame a foreign intruder while ignoring underlying causes. In the case of immigration, these include neoliberal economic policies and military imperialism, making other countries unlivable. In the case of the olive trees, similarly, they include the chemical assault on the soil that makes it, too, unlivable.
Where the conventional perspective on the olive tree deaths is that a killer bacteria is attacking them, we might view it differently: as the cry of the land, calling our attention to its suffering. Shall we listen to that cry? Or shall we continue to add to its suffering?
The OQDS issue offers a special opportunity to inaugurate a shift in our perceptions, methods, and policies. While it may seem a narrow issue in the context of our many global crises, the response to it sets the tone for responses to other situations in which we must choose between, on the one hand, waging war against the most readily identifiable bad guy, and on the other hand, seeking to understand and heal the ground conditions from which the “bad guy” arises. In addition, the response to OQDS will either further normalize the industrial, chemical-intensive, globalized system of commodity agriculture, or it will showcase an alternative to that system. Italy and the European Commission face a potent moment of choice here. We can hope that the beauty and cultural resonance of the ancient trees will inspire the courage necessary to chart a new course.
Before/after video of destroyed grove: https://www.facebook.com/enzo.suma.1/videos/10216048064024110/
Interview with scientific opponents of the extermination(Italian language): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pa1hu-5szk
Organic olive grower Roberto Polo (Italian language): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXdbb4xrImQ