Italy halts EU-ordered olive tree cull

Affected olive tree (Image courtesy of EPPO/D. Boscia, Istituto di Virologia Vegetale del CNR, Bari/F. Nigro, Università degli Studi di Bari/A. Guario, Plant Protection Service, Regione Puglia) Image copyright EPPO
Image caption Olive trees in Puglia have been suffering from dessication which makes the leaves turn brown

Prosecutors in southern Italy have halted a cull of olive trees in Puglia, ordered by the European Union over fears of a bacterial infection.

There is no clear link between infection with Xylella fastidiosa and the dessication symptoms affecting trees in the area, authorities claim.

Ten people in Puglia have been placed under investigation over their handling of the outbreak.

Italy is the EU's second biggest producer of olive oil.

Disease 'major threat' to EU olives

"We have found trees not affected by desiccation which tested positive for Xylella, and dried-out trees which tested negative," Lecce prosecutor Cataldo Motta said.

Those accused are being investigated for violations including spreading a plant disease and the destruction or disfigurement of natural beauty.

The European Commission says Xylella is one of the biggest disease threats to plants worldwide.

There is no effective treatment for infected plants and Commission regulations say the only solution is to destroy them and establish Xylella-free buffer zones around them.

In July the bacteria was found in southern Corsica, prompting emergency measures there.

Image caption Italy is the EU's second biggest producer of olive oil

Xylella has previously ravaged vineyards in California and citrus groves in Brazil. The disease is believed to kill plants by dehydration, as it blocks the delivery of sap in the xylem tissue.

The EU Commission says the bacterium found in Italy is believed to be a new genetic variant, "for which the range of host plants is still unclear". It is being spread by the meadow froghopper bug, which feeds on the sap of olive trees.

The EU tightened measures to contain the Xylella threat in May. They include a ban on all imports of coffee plants from Costa Rica or Honduras, though coffee seeds can still be imported.

The updated EU rules say Xylella has been detected in numerous coffee plants imported from the two Central American states.

The EU ordered Italy to demarcate the whole of Lecce province as an infected zone and create a 10km (six-mile) buffer zone around it. Lecce is the southernmost province in the Puglia region.

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