Italy

Could Italy Run Out of Olive Oil?

Xylella fastidiosa one of the most dangerous plant bacteria in the world has been killing olive trees across Sardinia, Puglia, and Tuscany. It has plagued Spain, reached France and now Israel. What can we, olive oil lovers do?

Think you can grow an olive tree from a 3,800-year-old olive pit? Strange question unless you happen to be holding an olive pit from a 3,800-year-old tree. The Olivastri Millenari or Millenial Olive Trees in Sardinia, Italy have ancient history in their roots. They bear the fruit of wisdom, cultivated through time. Maybe they are trying to tell us something? Warn us of a danger to come?

Italy’s Olive Oil Production Risks

Here’s the backstory of how exploring a love of olive trees in Sardinia, Italy led to learning about the most dangerous plant bacteria in the world. Why I believe foodies who value olive oil should pay attention and a few humble suggestions of what we can do about it.

Olivastri Millenari di Santo Baltolu

Paolo loves olive trees. He says they look wise. So on our trip to Sardinia, we tore ourselves away from pristine beaches to visit the wild beauty of the Sardinian countryside.

Getting to Olivastri Millenari of Santu Baltolu takes a bit of off-roading. Even after an hour-long drive over a mercilessly bumpy dirt road the rewards were immediately apparent. The Olivastri Millenari are giants!

Italy-Run-Out-of-Olive-Oil
Olivastri Millenari of Santu Baltolu

Cultivated olive trees usually have relatively thin trunks and leaves. Not wild ones! Think of a gnarly beast emerging from the earth, then think taller. At 3,800 years “s’Ozzastru” is the oldest of the Millenari standing 26 feet tall with branches extending 40 feet wide. Its limbs are so old and heavy they lean on the ground for stability before reaching skyward again.

The nearby University of Sassari puts the ages of Olivastri Millenari trees between 2,500 and 4,000 years old. Surprisingly the Millenari still bear fruit. During our visit the ground was covered in olive pits. Scooping a few up and turning them over in my hands I wondered if the secret to longevity is being wild. For the sake of the Olivastri Millenari I hope so.

Brandy Shearer at Olivastri Millenari of Santu Baltolu
Brandy Shearer at Olivastri Millenari of Santu Baltolu

Looking back on our trip to Sardinia, I started connecting dots. The picture I see now doesn’t look promising. Not for olive trees in Sardinia and not for people like myself who love olive oil. Which brings us to Agriturismo Su Boschettu.

Olive Trees are Dying in Sardinia

Later that night Paolo was speaking with the owner of our Agriturismo about Sardinian food. The owner, farmer and chef that night was a proud Sardinian, and a character. His face kissed by sun, creased by time grew animated as he pointed to a white and green growth on a nearby olive tree. Plucking a few leaves he crumbled them in his hands. They looked brown as if scorched, too close to the fire.

Between my elementary Italian, a healthy wine buzz and the suckling pig cracking on a nearby fire, I struggled to keep up. Doing his best to listen while simultaneously translate Paolo said something about Puglia, insects, bacteria and death, that much I knew. What I didn’t know until later is one of the symptoms of Xylella fastidiosa is leaf scorch.

Xylella Fastidiosa is Killing Off Olive Trees in Italy

Puglia is a beautiful region of Italy and along with Sardinia it accounts for nearly half of Italy’s olive oil production. Turns out, that white and green growth we were seeing in Sardinia was a symptom of a Xylella Fastidiosa infection. Xylella Fastidiosa is one of the most dangerous plant bacteria in the world.

Tiny bugs called spittlebugs pass Xylella from tree to tree. Native to Italy, these bugs were never seen as a problem until now. Now, when farmers see spittlebugs they burn their crops because they know once a tree is infected there is no cure. It stays infected until it dies. The only hope is to prevent the spread.

An olive tree infected with Xylella stops producing fruit and begins to dies of thirst from the inside out. Scorched leaf is one of the symptoms. After researching what I’d heard in bits and pieces that night in Sardinia everything made sense. I distinctly remember seeing a fire stoked with olive branches.

At the time I thought nothing of it. At the time, I simply enjoyed the homemade olive oil we’d had for dinner that night at the Agrituriomo with suckling pig.

Xylella has been making its way from Sardinia and Puglia north to Tuscany. It’s been spotted in France, plagued Spain and reached Israel as well. So what on earth can we, olive oil lovers and average citizens do? Where’s the silver lining?

What Olive Oil Lovers Can Do About Xylella

There are three relatively simple things that my fellow Foodies can do to help save our beloved olive oil.

  1. Get informed. Keep track of what’s happening with The Olive Oil Times. Who knew there was an Olive Oil Times? Now you do!
  2. Be social. Share this post or any article about Xylella from The Olive Oil Times to help spread the word and raise awareness.
  3. Don’t Be a Foodie Rebel. Please follow import restrictions on food and plants while traveling. Okay, I know that one seems dull, but consider this. The chairwoman of the Australian Garlic Industry Association is in serious trouble after pleading guilty to illegally importing garlic plants which may have been infected with Xylella fastidiosa. Taking illegal imports home puts your own local agriculture at risk making it harder to stop the spread of Xylella worldwide.

Could Italy Run Out of Olive Oil? Could You Help Save It?

Now, on to that silver lining note I promised. In January of this year, Italy approved a €300M fund to fight Xylella. While there is still no known cure for Xylella the goal of the fund is to eradicate, replant, research and restore Italy’s olive growing region. With any luck, the Olivastri Millenari of Santu Baltolu will stay standing. Too wild for Xylella Fastidiosa to touch.

Hopefully when COVID-19 is under control you can do one more thing to help. Come visit me in Italy. Or at the very least, email me when you’re ready to make your own travel plans to Italy. I’d be honored to help locate an Agriturismo like Sardinian Agriturismo Su Boschettu where dollars from tourism go straight into the hands of the farmers keeping Italy’s tradition of quality food production alive. Till then may these photos of Olive Trees across Italy inspire your next travel fantasy.

Photos of Olive Trees in Italy

Photography of Italian Olive Trees by Paolo Ferraris

Paolo Ferraris at Olivastri Millenari of Santu Baltolu
Paolo Ferraris at Olivastri Millenari of Santu Baltolu

Sources

6 comments

    1. Hi Kevin, that’s a great question but one I’m not qualified to answer with authority beyond that of a travelers curiosity. I know there are official tracking bio security measures in place through the EU https://ec.europa.eu/food/plant/plant_health_biosecurity/legislation/emergency_measures/xylella-fastidiosa/latest-developments_en

      Other tracking sources show it as present

      https://gd.eppo.int/taxon/XYLEFA/distribution

      What are your thoughts?

      Like

      1. Thanks Brandy. I am constantly watching and reading. My eyes have been on Puglia where I expect eventual failure of containment measures. The perimeter of the buffer zone is being stretched out to bursting point. When Xylella escapes in insect vectors, all Italian olives will be at risk unless plantings of new resistant or tolerant cultivars perform well and are horticulturally productive for quality olives and oil. I think Sardinia should rightly be concerned. Your article was the first alluding that it may be there. The nearby Corsican and Tuscan outbreaks are genetically different and both are different to that in Puglia. They reinforce the evidence of multiple introductions into the EU. We are trying to avoid the same fate by monitoring these ongoing outbreaks.
        Regards Kevin

        Like

        1. Kevin it sounds as if you know far more than I do! I’m a simple traveler sharing her tale but if there is any chance the story were we told by our B&B host in Sardinia is one you’d like to hear more about, especially where we were in Sardinia, I’m happy to connect. Please feel free to email me direct anytime at Brandy@alorconsulting.com

          Like

  1. I’ve been thinking more lately about saving Italy as a tourist destination in my life because of the uncertain future of the pandemic. Good luck on your olive oil mission.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Usfman. With my Husband having been born and raised in Italy and a good deal of my career being in food media, we are hoping to find our purpose in working to save parts of the Italian food culture for future generations that are most at risk. I appreciate your stopping by reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

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