Olive growers facing a killer bacteria outbreak that has affected millions of trees in southern Italy are planning to take legal action against containment measures set out by the European Union, which they claim have no scientific grounds and threaten to wipe out their centuries-old industry.
A farmers' association in the Apulian province of Lecce said its lawyers are at work to assess whether they can successfully appeal to the European Court of Justice to have an EU decision banning new tree implants revoked.
"Entire areas are at risk of turning into desert land," Giovanni Melcarne, a local grower and member of the producer alliance La Voce dell'Ulivo (The Olive Tree Voice), told IBTimes UK.
The implant ban was imposed across the whole Lecce province by the EU in May as part of an emergency plan to curb the spreading of Xylella fastidiosa, a bacteria with no known cure that dries out olive trees.
However the 1,000 members of La Voce dell'Ulivo claim it has no beneficial effect but is just turning orchards into "open-air cemeteries". Melcarne said numerous local olive growers have been forced to shut down operations and their land now lays abandoned as they cannot plant new trees. Olive trees grow on stony land, making it difficult for growers to convert to other crops.
Xylella fastidiosa has no known detrimental effect on olives produced by affected plants that are still alive.
The new plantation ban, Melcarne argued, is actually hampering the process of finding a solution to the crisis. "New implants lead to the discovery of species of olive trees that are tolerant to the bacteria and more likely to survive," he said.
The oil producer, who estimated that about 10% of the province 11m olive trees might have contracted the bacteria since it was identified in 2013, also lamented that the implementation of measures that could have produced a positive effect has been slow down by bureaucracy instead.
The EU had ordered the creation of a 10km buffer zone where trees had to be eradicated to avoid the bacteria spreading north to other Italian regions. However only 52 trees have been so far removed due to red tape and law suits brought forward by environmental groups. Because of the delay, Xylella fastidiosa may have already breached the containment zone.
Despite the spreading bacteria the Lecce province is set for a record olive harvest - "the best in a decade for quality and quality," according to Melcarne.
Oil output has in fact so far been only moderately affected by the bacteria. Last year's poor production, one of the worst on record, was mainly due to adverse climate conditions and a fruit fly infestation, which have not reoccurred this year.
The situation is set to worsen though as Xylella fastidiosa takes about one and a half years to devour a plant. "It would be a mistake to think that the problem is over because of this year exceptional harvest," Melcarne said.
An outbreak of Xylella fastidiosa has been recently reported in French Mediterranean island of Corsica.