Of Almonds and Olives
Once again the dreaded plant pathogen Xylella fastidiosa has come onto my radar. I first wrote about it in the context of olive trees in southern Europe; now it is affecting almond trees as well.
In the old us-versus-them, conquest-of-nature paradigm, the response to a deadly plant disease is to exert some form of extreme control: spraying, cutting, and burning ancient trees and, eventually, planting chemical-intensive tree monocrops in their place. Another approach takes a step back from seeing the “pathogen” as an unambiguous enemy, and asks, “What might the outbreaks be telling us about our relationship to the trees, to the soil, and to life?” Indeed, growers in Italy have discovered that care-intensive, organic practices seem to protect the trees. Maybe there is another way.
Recently a group of farmers, biologists, and activists reached out to my friend, the writer Bayo Akomolafe, for advice on the onslaught against the almond trees there. I would like to share his response as a beautiful example of an alternative way of thinking, so different from the domination mentality.
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Your story exemplifies what I say over and over again: that the way we respond to our problems often reinforce the problem and reiterate the paradigms that occasioned them. As you rightly point out, oftentimes the treatment or intervention is worse than the trouble it is designed to solve. From what I understand, these scientific authorities have concluded that this bacterial organism that kills the almond trees (as well as more than 300 different vegetal species, including olive trees) is best engaged with poisons that damage the soil, destroy the land with chemicals – affecting over 300,000 trees.
I did some research on this bacterium after getting your email and stumbled on a news piece that names it as Xylella fastidiosa – one of the most feared plant pathogens in the world. What’s interesting about Xylella – a truly bio-geopolitical hyper-event is that many scientists fear that it cannot be eradicated – affecting many countries in the Eurozone. There’s a lot of contention about how to intervene. This magazine reports that: “In December, Vytenis Andriukaitis, the European Commissioner-designate responsible for Health and Food Safety, warned that Xylella had become ‘the biggest phytosanitary crisis confronting the EU for many years.’ He made his comments in Paris.” The article asks: “What to do then? Cut or not cut sick olive trees and their neighbors? It’s here that scientists are divided.”
For now, the strategy remains to cut down and eradicate the sick tree and every almond tree 7 acres around in areas where authorities are seeking to stem the disease’s spread…“The only way to fight it is the complete eradication of infected trees and their surroundings as so far no treatment exists for the bacteria,” Andriukaitis, the EU Commissioner, said in an email to Olive Oil Times.
But there are faint glimpses of alternatives. Farmers who have seen the devastation brought upon their lands and have to contend with the aftermath of this senseless destruction that achieves little or nothing are presenting an option: co-existence with Xylella. From a modernist perspective, the bacterium is a discrete organism – composed of its own sovereign characteristics, independent, and separate. In the eyes of the authorities, eradicating it will solve the problem. But Xylella is not an “it”; it is not discrete or separate from, say, anthropogenic practices of eradication. It is part of a larger assembly of entities. It is part of a rhizome of interconnected realities, a phenomenon of inter-being. My inquiry into the particularities of this event and pathogen are limited, but there is some indication that the epidemiology of Xylella lies at the intersections of transatlantic trade and the use of chemicals. In a sense, Xylella is “us”. It is partly occasioned by an involution of our own agricultural practices. To eradicate it is ironically to strengthen it – and this much is evident from all the failed attempts to control it. In a sense, eradicating something so complex only creates new entanglements.
The farmers who speak about co-existing with Xylella speak about planting resistant strains of olive tree (I’m not sure if there are parallels with almond tree species). This farmer says: “It’s all wrong. You can’t cut down all the olive trees. We must seek to live with the disease, as farmers have always done.” I do not know what he means by this. But this is a much more complex relationship than merely pathologizing the ‘problem’ and seeking to eradicate it – which has proven counterproductive.
It might just be that your planned protest and creative resistance might capture public imagination and stay the hands of the authority. You might want to give it a try. However, I would stress that this goes hand in hand with learning how to live with Xylella. In my own practice as a psychologist, treating auditory hallucinations (voices in the head) as enemies to be stamped out with pills and chemicals have tended towards failure. But when affected persons make friends with these voices, it can be less crippling and even advantageous.
If eradication doesn’t work, maybe courting this destructive force can generate healthier options.
Here are my hesitant invitations or disconnected ideas for you to consider: launch an inquiry into the ways to live with Xylella. Introduce this “enemy of a pathogen” to the authorities in new light – not as a stranger to be vanquished but as an obstacle.(1) Create an example of your ongoing partnership. Meet with Xylella. Ask it what it demands of you. Call for a communal ritual of approaching Xylella as something sacred, as a Kali-like force that will not be appeased with fire and more fire. Know that in doing this you might be opening up other spaces of power. Ask Xylella to speak, to meet with you all. Stay with the trouble of this. Enact an altar to the grief of losing those trees.
This feels like a posthumanist(2) project to me – an expedition to the frontiers of a more-than-human ‘pathogen’. It might feel defeatist – but seen through the lenses of entanglement, I think it is a potentially wiser way of addressing the situation.
I am just one head. This takes community – so I am copying in my friends and comrades into my response to your email. There might be other ideas worth sharing.
* * * * * * * * * *Bayo has located the War on Xylella within a larger pattern extending even to psychiatry. The pattern is to respond to any disruption of order by intensifying control. And then, when new disorder erupts despite (or, often, because of) the technologies of control, it responds with yet more control. We can see this pattern in politics, medicine, and of course, agriculture. Its fulfillment would be a completely ordered, engineered world, where nothing is left to chance. We would live in a rational utopia.
The most extreme form of control is killing. It is to be expected that the default response to health problems in the body, a tree, or the land is to find something to kill. To paraphrase a common saying, when your most familiar tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Medical researchers look for a pathogen, because then they know what to do. Agronomists too are disposed to find a pathogen — there it is, Xylella fastidiosa! However, the enemy they have discovered may be in large part the image of their own ideology, the ideology of control, the ideology of the fight. As one scientist, Margherita Ciervo, observes:
Moreover, some more recent studies conducted in California on olive trees exhibiting leaf scorch or branch die-back symptoms have shown that they are not well correlated with xf presence. In fact, “only approximately 17% of diseased trees tested positive for X. fastidiosa by polymerase chain reaction, and disease symptoms could not be attributed to X. fastidiosa infection of olive in greenhouse pathogenicity assays”, as well as the “mechanical inoculation of X. fastidiosa olive strains to olive resulted in infection at low efficiency but infections remained asymptomatic and tended to be self-limiting” (Krugner et al., 2014, p. 1186).
The endless fight against the world makes sense when one strips nature – the other-than-human world – of any intelligence or inherent order, reducing it to an unruly melee of random natural forces that need to be controlled. It no longer makes sense in light of ecology and complexity theory, which sees Xylella and all organisms as part of an interconnected whole. If they proliferate we ask, “What has disrupted their mutually limiting relationship with the rest of life?”
The Xylella epidemic brings us to a crossroads where we can choose either to intensify the industrial agricultural practices of control, or to adopt the ecological mindset. From the ecological mindset we ask how we might support the trees. What makes them strong? Is it a rich soil microbiome (devastated by agricultural chemicals)? Is it symbiotic relationships with insects that thrive in a biodiverse understory? Is it mutually strengthening relationships with companion plants? This kind of ecological knowledge often resides in a cultural lineage that has acquired it over generations of people who think like Bayo suggests when he advises to “meet with Xylella.” Therefore, the Xylella epidemic may be a social problem as much as it is an ecological problem.
It is also an economic problem. The industrial agricultural practices that destroy soil, place, and life are not happening out of human villainy. They respond to the iron law of the marketplace, which rewards uniform commodities produced at the lowest short-term cost. Ecological damage or the unsustainability of monocrop tree farms on a fifty-year time scale, does not enter the balance sheet. Cheaper competitors will win, for now.
“Now” is almost over though. Producers and regulators are stuck in a system that is no longer working and that they increasingly do not believe in. I wish I could offer a short cut to exit that system. I think appealing to the growing ecological consciousness – as Bayo named it, interbeing – can be powerful, because on some level everyone wants to move in that direction. Successful demonstrations of alternatives help propel that consciousness. What pierces me most deeply though is the appeal to beauty. These trees, the centuries-old olives and almonds, are magnificent beings. It pains the heart to just cut them down – destroying some to save the rest, which then succumb nonetheless in turn. There has to be another way. What motivates us to persevere in finding it? What keeps us unreasonable? Beauty keeps us unreasonable. Love keeps us unreasonable. In my bones I know that we will not find a solution to Xylella that preserves the old groves, unless we love the old groves, and give that love a seat at the policy table. In fact, let it occupy the head of the table, and move quantifiable costs and benefits to a subordinate seat. If we make the trees – and indeed the whole of the living world – into an object of love, we will co-create a world that we love. If we reduce them to nothing but objects of utility, then we will end up alone in a bleak world, a world that is merely useful.
(1) The invitation here is for the recipients of the email to find ways of dismantling the notion that Xylella can simply be done away with – without startling (and often terrible) repercussions. Instead of thinking of Xylella as an enemy, approach it as something deserving of respect, something prestigious, something that is not simply an evil ‘Other’ but is entangled with how we act and respond to the world around us.
(2) Posthumanism signifies a break with old Western assumptions that think of the human being as central to the workings of the universe, bringing attention to the non-human or more-than-human. Posthumanist thinking denotes a range of non-dualistic theoretical positions that redesignates humans as part of a world that is alive, vibrant, dynamic and intelligent.