The Xylella fastidiosa bacteria originated in the United States but was detected in southern Italy in 2013 and has since been responsible for olive quick decline syndrome (OQDS) a disease that has caused a rapid decline in olive plantations.
The bacteria had never been detected in Europe before being confirmed in southern Italy, where it is currently ravaging olive groves in the region of Apulia.
Now officials in Spain are worried about the potential threat to the country's olive groves; Spain is the biggest olive oil producer in the European Union.
Christened “olive ebola” by Blanca Landa, researcher from the Institute of Sustainable Agriculture, part of the CSIC, one of Spain’s foremost scientific organizations, the disease is currently threatening to decimate Spanish olive groves across the south of the country.
“The Italian outbreak is very virulent,” Landa told Spanish daily ABC, “the bacteria’s virulence in olive trees is unprecedented,” she added.
“It is unforgiving. The Italian farmers we met told us they had taken better care of their olive groves than their children and now they are irrevocably damaged. In barely a year it can wipe out an entire plantation.”
There is no cure for the bacteria and affected olive trees have to be felled.
Ester Herranz, a Popular Party MEP has complained that the European Union has done little to confront the disease since it was first detected in 2013.
EU action has been slow off the ground; only last week the European Parliament failed to pass a resolution calling for the EU to take the threat from the bacteria more seriously by investigating if it was necessary to stop agricultural imports from high risk zones.
Landa has criticized the lack of EU funding for research into the disease which is already affecting olive groves in Italy and could already be in Spain:
“Xylella could already be in Spain and have gone unnoticed,” she told ABC, “one of the species it affects is oleanders and Andalusia is full of them, often very close to thousands of acres of olive groves.”
The fear is that if the bacteria did make it to Spain, there would be very little anyone could do to stop it: “It would be unstoppable,” Landa added.
“We need a system in place of mass screening for the bacteria to avoid having to take the preventative measure of tearing up thousands of olive trees,” she said.
EU member states failed to reach an agreement on how to stop the spread of the disease back in March 2015. Spain wanted a hard line, fearing for its own olive groves as well as vines and citrus trees, EU officials told AFP.
But Italy was less willing to take drastic measures as growers mounted increasing resistance to the destruction of age-old olive groves.