Italy's olive groves face devastation by mystery bugs
The ancient olive groves of southern Italy, which provide much of the oil the country exports, are being destroyed by deadly, insect-borne bacterium that has already infected nearly half-a-million trees and has no known cure.
The Xylella Fastidiosa, which comes from the Americas, has infected trees across 74,000 acres of the region of Puglia in Italy's heel and is spreading rapidly.
"Eight months ago it was spread across just 20,000 acres, which gives you an idea of how fast it travels," Roland Manfredini, an expert with Italian farmers' lobby group Coldiretti said.
"The trees just dry out and die, looking like they have been burned." Now, as the bacteria spread across the bottom half of Puglia, experts have developed a bold plan to create a mile-wide cordon, stretching from the Adriatic coast on the east to the Ionian coast on the west of Puglia, to seal off the area.
Inside the cordon, grass will be cut back and pesticides will be used to halt the insects that spread the bacteria.
"We are counting on this because Puglia is one large olive grove, and with no cure, this cordon may be around for a long time," said Antonio Guario, a health official with the regional government.
The area below the planned cordon contains about nine million olive trees, some of which are 600 years old and renowned for their gnarled, twisting trunks. Of the roughly 800,000 trees inside the area known to be contaminated, more than half were likely to be infected, said Mr Guario.
Italy exports 480,000 tonnes of olive oil annually, the world's second largest total after Spain. With Puglia accounting for 180,000 tonnes,
Italy's business could be devastated if the bacteria spread. Puglia's olive groves have helped to draw British expatriates to the region, which has been dubbed "Trullishire" after the traditional local houses known as trullis. Wealthy Italians pay up to €5,000 to uproot ancient trees to replant in their gardens.
"These trees are monuments and produce one of the key ingredients of the Mediterranean diet," said Mr Manfredini.
Magistrates are investigating how the bacterium, which has also plagued vines in California, crossed the Atlantic. (© Daily Telegraph)