In early 2016, Giovanni Melcarne, an agronomist and the owner of an extra virgin olive oil farm in Gagliano del Capo, walked through the southern Italian countryside of Puglia. He was with a fellow olive oil farmer who had called and told him there was something he had to see.
The two approached a centuries-old olive tree growing at the edge of the street along a traditional stone wall. All around, the old olive trees that covered the red clay were either dead or in an advanced state of decay, filling the landscape with an unnatural greyness. Melcarne was not surprised: At least 2 million olive trees in Puglia looked this way, including many of his own.
The cause of the blight was Xylella fastidiosa, a bacteria that researchers believe arrived around 2010 from Latin America, possibly from Costa Rica on an imported ornamental plant. Today, Xylella has infected at least one-third of the 60 million olive trees in Puglia, which produces 12 percent of the world’s olive oil. The bacteria leaves no chance of survival: Once a plant is infected, it’s doomed to die in a handful of years. Today, Xylella is spreading fast across Puglia, crossing into other Italian regions and Mediterranean countries, and upending the production of olives and olive oil, the symbols of the Mediterranean.
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