An olive oil crisis is looming. A bacterium which destroys olive trees has been discovered in mainland Spain, raising fears that it could devastate this year’s harvest in the country that produces half of the world’s olive oil from 320 million trees. Xylella Fastidiosa, which dries trees out, leaving their leaves looking scorched, was found in almond trees near Guadalest, a town in Valencia in Eastern Spain.
Elena Cebrian, head of the Valencian Regional Government’s Agricultural Department, said that all the Olive trees within a 100 metre radius of the infected area were being destroyed. It is also being treated against insects that spread the bacteria.
The disease was detected in Mallorca and Ibiza last year and where the authorities destroyed infected trees. Plant exports have been banned from the Balearic Islands to prevent the bacteria – which farming associations refer to as olive oil leprosy – from reaching other parts of Spain.
The pathogen emerged in Italy in 2013 and killed up to about half a million trees, ruining the harvest. Officials were forced to chainsaw trees in an effort to contain the disease. It has also been detected in France. Experts fear that if the bacteria spreads in Spain it could cause similar damage to the harvest. Farmers in Andalucía, the southern region where 60% of Spain’s olive oil is produced, called for emergency measures to prevent the disease spreading.
Luis Carlos Valero, head of the Farming Union ASAJA, said: ‘It has appeared in an almond farm but imagine what would happen in Andalucía with the olives where we have trees as far as the eye can see, for thousands of hectares between Jaen, Cordoba and Granada. This is without doubt the biggest threat to the future of farming here. We must do everything to stop this thing from getting here.’
Rafael Pico, director general of the Spanish Association of Exporters of Olive Oil, said: ‘We do not want to comment on this until we know the extent of the infection on the mainland and measures which are being taken to prevent it spreading. We do not want to create a panic among our members.’
What a calamity if the disease is allowed to spread, given that olive oil has now become a staple diet in most countries of the world! Let’s hope preventive measures will ensure from it becoming an acute tree leprosy, with devastating effects in Europe and beyond.