food / travel

Puglia Postcard: Ground Zero Of Italy’s Olive Tree Disease Disaster

The bacterium Xylella has arrived in Italy, infecting thousands of olive trees in a stretch of the southeastern peninsula. Europe is powerless, with the region's entire economy at risk.

Uprooting Xylella olive trees contaminated by Xylella in Puglia
Uprooting Xylella olive trees contaminated by Xylella in Puglia
Pierre de Gasquet

ALLISTE â€" The so-called “Giant of Alliste” suddenly appears at the bend of a path. This imposing olive tree is 32-feet-high with a base of twisted trunks measuring 25 feet in circumference. It is said to be 1,500 years old.

Its shadow appears like a sleeping pachyderm, cast onto the Italian brown earth. But at the top of the tree, several branches appear stunted and desiccated, and have lost their colors. “Have you heard the news?” a local police officer Francesco Manfreda mutters. “The Giant is dying.”

It is not alone. Some researchers estimate that as many as one million olive trees in the province of Lecce, in the southeastern region of Puglia, are affected by the same potentially lethal bacterium, Xylella. The disease striking the "green gold" goes beyond southern Italy, affecting regions around the country, as well as some other parts of Europe.

“It is feared that this disease is an epidemic if not a pandemic,” Donato Boscia says, pointing at a map of infected zones at the National Research Council’s headquarters in the regional capital of Bari.

Boscia is the man who identified the bacterium in 2013. “There is no treatment for trees to recover from this bacterial outbreak unlike the disease known as olive tree leprosy,” he explains.

Only prevention measures remain to avoid the disease from quickly spreading all over the country. “From now on cutting trees down has become useless around Lecce considering that the infected zone is huge,” the CNR lab boss explains.

So far,18 species have been at least temporarily contaminated, including the oleander, the rosemary, the asparagus and 312 other stumps and subspecies liable to be infected. But olive trees, also known as kings of Puglia, are the most seriously hit, given that they cover areas across 55% of the region.

“An environmental disaster”

The road winds through devastated fields between Gallipoli and Taviano, the nearby town where nearly half the houses are for sale because of the economic crisis. Olive trees are turned into stunted stumps and stand like skeletons as if they had been struck by invisible lightning.

Sandro Portaccio, a former advisor to Italy's minister of agriculture, says the situation is grim, and in large part can be blamed on the nature of the European Union's CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), through which farmers receive a subsidy without being encouraged to take care of the land.

“We are facing a real environmental disaster," he says. "Europe can't do anything about it. The disease is bound to reach Tuscany soon.”

The impact of this outbreak on the local economy risks being enormous in an area known for its single-crop farming, where each family owns an average of just 50 olive trees.

According to Donato Boscia, the Xylella disease has already struck twice in other places in the past. In California, vineyards were devastated for decades by a similar bacterium around South Bay in Los Angeles. The outbreak essentially ended what had been a long-established wine-growing industry. More recently the same kind of bacterium (named Pauca) has been contaminating citrus fruits in Brazil.

No cut, no luck

Cutting infected trees down faces many obstacles even if the European Parliament requires it. “If your grandfather is suffering from a tumor, you will not cut his head off. At worst he will end up in a different room!” Pantaleo Piccinno protests. He is the president of the provincial federation of Coldiretti (an association of agricultural producers) and owner of a large farm in the north of Lecce which has for now been spared by the outbreak.

Environmental organizations are standing up against measures for eradication and pesticide treatment advocated by Brussels. In mid-April, environmentalists tried to oppose the felling of olive trees in the town of Oria, which is one of the most sensitive areas close to the buffer zone imposed by the European Commission.

As a precaution, Brussels ordered the elimination of every plant within a 100-meter radius of the contaminated trees. But some 20 nearly bankrupt nursery owners made an appeal last May to the local administrative court that blocked the implementation of the eradication program developed by special commissioner for the Xylella emergency Giuseppe Silletti.

“The European Union should come back down to earth. Eradication is a complex operation,” Piccinno protests.

Giuseppe Silletti blames the EU as one of the main parties responsible for this catastrophe. "There should have been a better European system for supervising the importing of plant species," he says.

Silletti takes the example of coffee plants that had been contaminated by Xylella before being intercepted in the Rungis market in Paris last April. In charge of directing measures for eradication and the use of insecticides, Silletti's room for maneuver is extremely limited because of constant appeals and protests, and he will have to review his original plan in accordance with the new European decision adopted at the beginning of May.

“We have already sent 40 statements to the farmers who did not implement the measures. Plowing the fields is essential. We can reduce the carrier of the disease by 80%. If we get the green light we will order the trees down to be cut down,” Silletti says.

Monsanto factor

The price of olive oil has so far doubled over the past year, following lower production volumes. “Most of the farmers are ready to sacrifice a few trees to save their cultivations but the European Union forbids us to replant olive trees,” Coldiretti president Gianni Cantele says.

But the solution that some advocate is to transform the Salento peninsula around Lecce into an open-air laboratory for agronomic research, which is why Coldiretti organized a ‘cluster’ to promote the use of nanotechnologies that were already used to fight against tumors. “If Americans did not succeed in combatting the bacterium, other ways have to be explored. But we need more means: the European Union has to invest in research.”

Giuseppe Silletti, however, sees the darkest side of all. “Let us not fool ourselves: this whole affair is a set-up by agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto Company,” he declares.

Indeed, plenty of locals are convinced that the multinational is using Xylella as a Trojan horse to market its own stumps which are resistant to the bacterium.

Boscia calls such accusations "pure science-fiction," noting the EU legislation that forbids the cultivation of transgenic seeds.

Another fact is even more troubling: a recent official report on the ‘agromafia’ published in January 2015 by the Eurispes Institute and the Observatory on Crime in Agriculture casts doubt on the origins of the olive trees’ decline. It suggests that the CoDiRO syndrome could be linked to the use of pesticides.

Eurispes chairman Gian Maria Fara raised the possibility of a “chemical or bacteriological warfare” to promote property speculation in one of Italy's most sought-after regions for national and international tourism. The report notes that the areas most affected by the outbreak (Gallipoli, Racale, Taviano, Alliste, Parabita…) are also the most coveted by hotel builders and developers.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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