Is the Biotech Industry Behind the Destruction of Italy’s Olive trees?

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Italy is internationally known mainly for three things: its cuisine, its abysmal politics, and its vistas and beaches. In recent months, a series of events has developed that involve those three aspects. Activists, farmers and a government inquiry have shed some light on what could be a potential covert assault by the biotech industry on one of the pillars of Italy’s culture and culinary heritage: olive trees.

The area of Salento, in Puglia, is home to some of the most ancient olive orchards on Earth. The centuries-old trees are not only considered the property of the orchard owners, but also the collective heritage of the Italian people. Their presence has provided a livelihood to thousands of people for millenia. In recent months, however, a phenomenon called CoDiRo, or Rapid Complex Desiccation of Olive Trees, has caused many of the trees to dry out. Among the causes of this condition there could be a bacterium called Xylella fastidiosa, which attacks, among others, the xylem in citrus trees  and grape vines, dries them and their outgrowths, and often prevents the creation of fruits. Before 2014, there was no recorded case of these bacteria infecting olive trees.

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At the beginning of the agriculture crisis, the progression of this condition was being referred to by the regional authorities as the result of a multiplicity of factors and pathogens, hence the word “Complex” in the name. At least four fungal infections, together with a xylem-feeding insect vector and the Xylella fastidiosa pathogen were considered to be potentially responsible for spreading the infection. This claim was confirmed by an independent investigative team from the European Union. A document issued by the local government in 2014 also admitted that the dessication of olive trees has presented “a rather complex phyto-sanitary issue due to the different factors at play.” The Forest Guard commander in charge of containing the outbreak, Giuseppe Silletti himself, initially stated that simply turning the ground around the olive trees “has been successful in eradicating 90 percent of the population of insects vector of the bacteria.”

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Nevertheless, governmental and biotech lobbies, as well as the big-corporation friendly media, quickly began to shift the blame exclusively on the Xylella fastidiosa bacteria while ignoring other contributing factors such as the depletion of the soil due to the use of herbicides and pesticides and possible selection for certain species of insects. The complexity of the case was therefore drastically simplified, in order to present a threat that might not even have existed. The Italian government decided on a radical solution to confront this seemingly serious problem: the complete annihilation of all trees suspected of being infected and those near them. For months, farmers and activists opposed what would be the death sentence of the centennial olive trees, as well as the destitution of the farmers’ livelihood. The battle for the trees reached its peak in late May 2015, when the local government decided to go ahead with the eradication of the trees, while environmental activists took up positions on some of them to prevent this from happening. To defend its practices, the government of the region of Puglia claimed that it had received orders from the EU to carry out the eradication, a claim that was flatly denied by the concerned European officials.

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The main question at this point is whether the Xylella bacteria are solely responsible for the CoDiRO. Many Italian agronomists have publicly stated that they believe the primary causes of the condition are associated with excessive agro-chemical usage and other factors, rather than the infamous bacterial agent. Furthermore, they postulate that the local strain of Xylella may be endemic and asymptomatic. Echoing these concerns, the Italian Federation of Organic and Biodynamic Agriculture maintains that there are effective and less destructive methods of fighting the condition. These include the utilization of non-invasive and ancient pest-control methods, such as the use of copper sulphide and calcium hydroxide, insect nets, and organic pesticides, which are also in line with the principles of organic farming. Answers are lacking but, as explained by the laboratory of Dr. Rodrigo Almeida at the University of California, Berkeley: “In plant pathology, conclusive evidence that a pathogen causes a specific disease requires the fulfillment of Koch’s postulates….. Researchers in Italy are currently working on fulfilling Koch’s postulates for strain CoDiRO and olive.” In essence, the answer is that we don’t know, and presently there is no scientific evidence to prove this hypothesis. Given the lack of certainty, farmers and environmental activists claim that the measures that the local and national government want to employ are excessively radical, and that they may be a smokescreen for a larger operation. Naturally, the next question arises: is this disease simply a catastrophic natural occurrence precipitated by human behavior, or are there grounds to suspect foul play?

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Let’s go back to 2010, when a network of plant pathologists, named Cost 873, met  in the Italian city of Bari. Among the attendees were scientists from the Mediterranean Institute of Agronomy of Bari who had brought samples of the Xylella pathogen from California “for the purposes of scientific research.” During the meeting, a hypothetical scenario was discussed in which the Xylella bacteria would be released in parts of Europe as part of an effort to determine how the countries would react to a “bio-terrorist attack.” This is a bizarre scenario to imagine in itself, but it doesn’t conclusively prove anything. They claim to have disposed of the pathogen, and that the bacteria  present in Italy are of a different variety than the one they had brought. This could not be known for sure, however, since the lead investigator, the commander of the Forest Guard Giuseppe Silletti, has refused to do a genetic comparison of the allegedly introduced bacteria to those involved in the current infections.

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Many do not understand the government’s insistence on the measure of eradication, particularly given the lack of concrete evidence and the existence of effective alternative policies. Many have pointed their fingers at the biotech industry. There are good reasons for this: the institution that brought the pathogen into Italy in the first place is funded by biotech companies. Furthermore the biotech giant Monsanto, known for its predatory practices, owns Allelyx, a company entirely devoted to the creation of GMO strains resistant to the bacteria, and the name of which, what an irony, is Xylella spelled backwards. Given these links, which are interesting but not conclusive, and the unwillingness of the government to conduct a thorough investigation, many have alleged that there is collusion between the government and the biotech industry. The popular belief is that this crisis could have been engineered for the purpose of eradicating local olive trees. The reasons for this are still debated, but the dominant hypothesis is to force local cultivators to switch to GMO varieties resistant to the disease. There is only one problem with this notion: there are currently no studies of GMO olive trees available.

During this investigation a Monsanto spokesperson was contacted for comments, as well as the University of Wageningen, and the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania. They all denied being involved in, or knowing about, any research on GMO olives. The only experiments in existence were conducted in Italy starting in the 1970s, and the trees were eradicated in 2012 after the passing of a law that prohibits any field test of GMO crops. This does not prove that there is no nefarious involvement but keeps the investigation open. Furthermore, it is not certain that the answers of the institutions that were contacted were, in fact, honest. The research may be carried on in secret, awaiting the spread of the disease to critical levels before being released.

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There is a second hypothesis that is wisely considered and seems to have serious grounds of legitimacy. In this scenario the tourism industry, and not the biotech one could be to blame. Indeed, the area most hit is a tourism hotspot. In the past two years, room booking requests have increased by 45 percent, which has prompted the local authorities to enact a ban on the construction of new tourist villages and resorts. This might change if the olive industry is decimated. Whether directly responsible or simply taking advantage of a “good crisis”, tourism businesses are already cashing in on the situation. Properties that have been deemed to be infected by the Xylella bacteria are being sold at extremely low prices, and many of them have already been purchased with the express intention of building nightclubs or hotels. Before this can proceed, the lands have to be reassigned, from being farming lots, to residential and commercial use – a measure that the region will most likely consider should they require increased income to offset the decrease in the olive business.

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Since July 2015, Italian police seems to have pursued this case more aggressively by confiscating hard-drives and files from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Mediterranean Institute of Bari. Meanwhile, the regional administrative tribunal of Lecce and Rome have called for an immediate freeze of the eradication policy (called the Silletti Plan) while an investigation is undertaken. Pursuant to this case are twenty-six organic olive oil brands and numerous farmers. The Italian Minister of Agriculture Maurizio Martina, the major proponent of the eradication plan, has already promised that he will file an appeal should the farmers win the court case.

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If  an answer is found and even if it bears the name Xylella, this should be cause for mourning – over 800,000 trees are poised to be cut down. Meanwhile the question remains: is the biotech industry deliberately attacking Italy’s olive trees? The one thing that is certain is that without the conclusive, transparent, and independently acquired scientific proof, these questions will remain unanswered. If this is the case, thousands of centennial olive trees will be eradicated for no good reason or, even worse, to serve a nefarious covert agenda.

Editor’s Note: Photographs one, seven and eight by Francesco; photograph four and six by Paolo Margari; photograph two by Sean O’ Casaidhe; three by Yellow Cat; five from Light Brigading archive and photograph nine by Steve Rhodes.

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11 Responses to Is the Biotech Industry Behind the Destruction of Italy’s Olive trees?

  1. -15 Vote -1 Vote +1Karl Haro von Mogel
    August 4, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    You ask: “Is the Biotech Industry Behind the Destruction of Italy’s Olive trees?”

    That question has a very simple and clear answer:

    No.

  2. Gilbert Mercier
    +13 Vote -1 Vote +1Gilbert Mercier
    August 4, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    A laconic answer from Mr. von Mogel, who happens to be involved in the biotech industry himself… for a company using the name: “Bio-fortified.” In this context, his blunt “No” speaks volume.

  3. +8 Vote -1 Vote +1Olivia LaRosa
    August 5, 2015 at 2:00 am

    von Mogel, please provide a citation to your information supporting your emphatic “no.” I generally find trolls to be unreliable sources of information.

  4. -4 Vote -1 Vote +1First Officer
    August 6, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    First Italy blames geologists for earthquakes and now biologists for outbreaks. It won’t be long before Italy starts throwing virgins into Mount Etna!

  5. -6 Vote -1 Vote +1Karl Haro von Mogel
    August 7, 2015 at 9:44 am

    No, I am not “involved in the biotech industry” but I co-run an independent non-profit organization that seeks to educate people about this and other topics. I have a PhD in plant breeding and genetics and have direct experience with the pathogen you are discussing in an academic research lab.

    The obvious culprit in the olive declines are the ever-evolving and changing disease pressures that scientists have identified. Standing trees, by their very nature, are genetically unchanging, and therefore unable to adapt to new diseases that they are susceptible to – you need new genetic combinations in new trees to do that. The idea that the Xylella pathogen can move to a new host is not a strange concept. Wheat rust also infects barberry, for instance. I worked in a lab studying Xylella and genetic diversity in Medicago truncatula (a legume) that determined whether or not the pathogen spread through the vascular tissue to other parts of the plant.

    This article is wholly without evidence, and the accusations that the biotech industry, or the tourism industry for that matter, are behind the destruction of these trees, is without any merit. It is a ridiculous conspiracy theory, and the onus is not on me to prove the negative – the onus is on you who is making this claim to provide evidence that it is true. Making claims about who benefits from the problem is not evidence that they are causing the problem.

    You concluded:

    “The one thing that is certain is that without the conclusive, transparent, and independently acquired scientific proof, these questions will remain unanswered.”
    This is not a logical conclusion. You have to support your argument with evidence and facts, not await others to disprove your assertions.

    Moreover, you must consider the ethics of those with infected trees suing to keep those trees – which are acting as reservoirs for the pathogen, ensuring that it will infect their neighbors.

  6. Ruben Rosenberg Colorni
    +5 Vote -1 Vote +1Ruben Rosenberg Colorni
    August 7, 2015 at 3:26 pm

    Mr. von Mogel,

    Firstly, you make accusations about me making assertions that are simply untrue. Nowhere in the article do I claim that the biotech or any other parties are responsible. The article simply presents a perspective — that of the vast majority of activists and agriculture practitioners in the affected areas, and an increasing number of the general public in Italy — which leads to unanswered questions. If you were careful enough to have read the article well the first time, and I urge you to re-read the last paragraph in particular if you haven’t, I freely admit that the Xylella bacterium may very well be one of the causes. Even if that were the case, it might not exclude foul play at all.

    Even if that were the case, however, you have failed to notice that there are well-documented alternatives to the radical solutions currently proposed. Some of them have even been deemed extremely successful, as I mention in the article. Since you have practical experience in the matter you should be aware of Koch’s postulate, and the fact that it has not yet been asserted, as I mention in the article. In fact, very little independent research has been conducted at all! Which I also mention in the article. But again, you do not seem to have read the article very well.

    Although I found most of your message to be inaccurate, I must wholly agree with you on one thing. The ones benefiting from a catastrophe are certainly not immediately accused of being the ones responsible from the catastrophe itself! “Never let a good crisis go to waste” should be the motto of many capitalist enterprises that benefit from these crisis. However, this does offer a strong motive, which must be investigated transparently and in depth to be accurate, wouldn’t you agree?

    If you re-read the article, you would see that this is all it attempts to do: ask questions that may shed light on the developments of this affair. The answer to the question posed in the title may very well be “No”, and you are right that we must prove it. But this cannot be done without asking the uncomfortable questions. Given your reaction, I have no doubt they are uncomfortable to many indeed. In any case, harassing and falsely accusing the ones who, as a job and a moral imperative, take it upon themselves to answer these question is a dubious endeavor at best.

    In any case, I don’t keep my feelings about the biotech industry a secret. As I say in the article, given the rapaciousness of the industry as a whole I think the scenario that many propose and that I outlined is plausible, but not necessarily true.

    With all due respect, Sir, I do not think you have measured either your words or mine very well. In cases like these, I am reminded of a saying once uttered by Bertrand Russell: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” Alas, I think that your unwillingness even to entertain the idea discussed in this article, which is both plausible and possible, would have you fall in the former category.

  7. -6 Vote -1 Vote +1Klaus Ammann
    August 14, 2015 at 7:09 am

    Dear Ruben, you follow the same stigmatization scheme as all fundamentalist opponents of GMOs, the evil is either coming from Monsanto or plainly from the biotech industry, and your way to put it as a hunch is just a cheap trick, since – as you can see with the comments, usually your followers will enthusiastically agree, in the mode of: “once again he has given it to the evil industry”. The only olive trees which have been willingly destroyed are those from Enzo Rugini at the University of Tuscia, and they have been “legally” destroyed, which I call an act of legal vandalism.
    I fully agree with Karl, like me a colleague funded by the state, in my case the University of Bern, Switzerland, now since 7 years a prof. emeritus.

    • Ruben Rosenberg Colorni
      Vote -1 Vote +1Ruben Rosenberg Colorni
      September 4, 2015 at 7:28 am

      Dear Klaus,

      Given your academic credentials I would expect to be more informed. Indeed you are absolutely wrong.

      Firstly, the Univ. of Tuscia is a state funded institution. Its botanical gardens and much of its agricultural department are completely state-funded. The research on which Dr Rugini was working was also state funded. In 2002, Italy passed a law completely banning field testing of GMOs to prevent even accidental contamination. Given the long growing period of Olive trees, Dr. Rugini was given a ten year extension – a particularly generous measure given how strictly the law has been enforced in every other respect. This extension expired in 2012. So not only the trees belonged to the state, but the state was in its full right to destroy them in order to comply with its own laws. It was actually required to, it didn’t have a choice.

      Furthermore, there a thousands of eyewitnesses among activists, law enforcement officers, journalists, farmers and citizens at large that can attest to the eradication of HUNDREDS if not thousands of olive trees in Salento. There are plenty of videos, pictures and testimonials available.

      The fact that you do not seem to be even vaguely aware of the most basic details of this case, or the fact that you have outright lied, does not really grant you any credibility whatsoever. University of Bern could certainly do better in its choices of Prof. Em.

  8. Dady Chery
    +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Dady Chery
    August 14, 2015 at 7:39 am

    It is interesting that the promoters, from biotech and academia, of this terrible destruction of the olive trees are marching to NJP, brandishing their credentials and hoping to impress and confuse the general public.

    No one would ever dream of suggesting that all humans with malaria should be killed because they represent a reservoir of the Plasmodium pathogen. Instead, scientists are trying to develop antimalarial drugs and vaccines (without much success) that target the protozoan parasite; in parallel they are working to control the insect vector, the Anopheles mosquito. The latter approach has been more successful.

    The situation with the olive trees is quite analogous, although the disease affects trees instead of humans; it involves other kinds of insect vectors, and these insects carry the Xyllela fastidiosa bacteria, instead of a protozoan parasite. Experience with other diseases that involve insect vectors should have taught us that prevention of the delivery of the bacteria by insects to the xylem tissue of plants should be first and foremost in this case. This eagerness to destroy trees, some of them more than a hundred years old, reeks of economic warfare. It brings to mind the destruction of the creole pig in Haiti because of a supposed swine flu, which was merely a pretext to damage the country’s peasant economy. So, in addition to the possibilities that the author has discussed, a proposed mass destruction of olive trees could also be a strategy to hurt Italy’s economy and drag it deeper into debt.

    Thank you, Ruben Rosenberg Colorni, for another excellent and thought provoking article.

  9. Gilbert Mercier
    +3 Vote -1 Vote +1Gilbert Mercier
    August 15, 2015 at 8:11 am

    The damage control done here by the Academia for profit is an indication that Ruben made many extremely pertinent points!

  10. +4 Vote -1 Vote +1roger
    September 5, 2015 at 12:50 pm

    Regrets: agribusiness, politicians and accademia have lied and spent time in bed with each other for so long and so blatantly that it is up to THEM to prove they are NOT lying about this Xylella business, and not the other way round. Von Mogel & Co., nobody believes you any more, so save your breath.

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