The Puglia paradox: Why pest invasions and historically high prices could actually be good for olive oil

  • 27.03.2024
  • article
  • Arable and Horticulture
  • Cooking and Growing
  • Environmental Issues
  • David McKenzie

Acres of abandoned olive groves, a global supply crisis and the apocalyptic threat of an invasive bacteria might not sound like a promising formula for small-scale olive growers in Puglia, Italy’s largest production region. But for some producers and local activists, that might just be the case.

An unwelcome visitor

A devastating outbreak of Xylella fastidiosa bacteria – said to have arrived in Italy on an ornamental plant from Central America – has been wreaking havoc on the ancient, iconic olive trees of southern Italy’s Puglia region for over a decade. During that time, millions of trees have died, and millions of euros have been pumped into projects to protect the trees and the heritage, culture and industry that they represent. Official responses to the outbreak have caused political division and frustration within Puglia and around Italy, and there is still much disagreement among farmers, industry experts and government officials about how to deal with the spread of Xylella fastidiosa.

However, pinning all the blame on the bacteria for the challenges facing Puglia’s olive oil sector might be oversimplifying things. It might also risk missing the important opportunities to improve olive oil production that this outbreak has elicited.

Trees showing ‘rust’ are a potential early sign detecting xylella infection

 

Big production, small scale

Following another year of heat waves in Spain and the ongoing Xylella fastidiosa outbreaks, the global price of olive oil has been at historically high levels throughout the first half of 2024. In both cases, the vulnerability of relying on intensive, yield-driven conventional monocultures has become plain. The current situation is tough, yet the fallout could end up bringing positive changes – especially if it can help to rebalance the supply system, encouraging smaller, more sustainable producers to compete in a way that, until recently, has been economically unfeasible.

Italy is one of the world’s top olive oil producers, and Puglia is (by far) Italy’s largest olive oil-producing region. Even in the years since the arrival of Xylella fastidiosa in the region, Puglia has continued to produce around half of Italy’s total olive oil output, amounting to approximately 15% of total worldwide production.

But although Puglia is a major producer in the olive oil industry, it is not a major industrial producer. There are certainly some big operators, but Puglia doesn’t have the same kind of regimented, large-scale, often state-run systems of other major olive producers like Spain, Tunisia, Turkey and Morocco. Instead, Puglia’s olive sector is largely made up of small and medium-sized growers, many of them harvesting from simple family plots. Between them, these plots contain a huge number of different varieties, many of them planted alongside other species (especially fig and almond). Some trees are over 1000 years old, gnarled and unruly, while others are small, trimmed and spindly, planted in the past 10 years. This diversity ensures a relative degree of resilience within Puglia’s olive industry.

However, there is one factor working against this resilience: the disappearance of people from the landscape.

Diversity and defence

The spread of Xylella fastidiosa is visibly much worse in some parts of Puglia than others. The regional government has a shifting system of red, orange and green ‘zones’, according to the risk and spread of the bacteria in that area. But the designation of these zones can be arbitrary. Even within one geographical area, the impact of the bacteria can be significantly different from one grove to the next, and even from one tree to the next.

“There is no one biological reason why one grove or tree might be more impacted than another,” says Nando Stefano, an olive farmer just outside Lecce. “Various natural factors could come into it: the genetic variety of the olive tree, the temperature and weather patterns of the local ecosystem, the structure of the soil or the slope of the land, for example.” However, he says that there is one factor that almost certainly dictates how good or bad the impact of Xylella fastidiosa can be on the trees: the presence of people.

If the trees are regularly tended, if people are living on or near the land, then early warning signs of an infected tree can more easily be detected. “There are many different treatments available to stop the spread of the bacteria, and with proper management some trees can even keep producing while partly infected.” So, in most cases, an outbreak of Xylella fastidiosa can be managed more easily, even kept under control, if people are keeping an eye on the trees.

But herein lies the issue, and part of what started the problem – a lot of these olive trees are left alone for most of the year.

An abandoned landscape

As in many other parts of the world, rural depopulation is a massive problem. As younger generations leave for better opportunities or turn to other professions, and older generations pass on, the traditional ways of life and farming are becoming increasingly less common. This trend has been going on for a while: the average age of Italian farmers has been getting higher and higher, and the number of small farms bought up and consolidated by bigger companies has been increasing steadily for decades. But recently it has gotten worse. In the 10 years from 2010-2020 alone, the number of farms in Italy shrunk by one-third. This has meant fewer people on the land, more centralisation of production, and greater reliance on ‘quick fix’ methods like chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

Fabio Gatti, a local olive grower from Ostuni who is also an academic in agronomy at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, has researched how these pre-existing factors in Puglia – rural depopulation and a shift away from traditional production, towards more industrial methods – provided conditions in which an outbreak of a pest (like Xylella fastidiosa) was much more likely.

“For example, greater diversity of things like soil microbes and insects would mean more competition for the insects that carry the bacteria,” says Gatti.

Also, it’s not like some killer zombie situation as soon as the bacteria is detected: some trees can keep producing while infected, and other varieties seem to be totally resistant. The problem is having people around to detect it.

The view from the hill town of Ostuni looking down towards the patchwork of the “monumental Olive Grove” towards the sea
The view from the hill town of Ostuni looking down towards the patchwork of the ‘monumental Olive Grove’ towards the sea

 

Part of the problem in keeping people on the land is the difficulty that smaller-scale Italian producers have in competing with bigger producers in other countries. Spain, for example, dominates the global olive oil market, typically producing around half of the world’s total. About 75% of this comes from Andalusia (particularly around Jaén), where an intensive and damaging olive monoculture system (initially set up under General Franco’s authoritarian regime) has been creaking under the pressures of climate change. Despite these climatic pressures — and largely buoyed by EU subsidies — Spanish producers have typically been able to produce extra virgin olive oil at a much lower cost, on average, than their Italian counterparts.

However, that has changed recently. Due to heat waves and drought in each of the past two years, the total olive harvest in Andalusia (and Spain more broadly) has been barely half what it had been in each of the previous five years. This situation has been similar in other major production regions, many of which feature expansive groves in hot, arid areas that prioritise the productivity of high-yielding varieties, relying heavily on extractive irrigation. The impact of the extreme heat in these areas has drastically reduced the supply of olives and olive oil on the global market.

The disruption that this has caused, however, and the frailties it reveals, is where smaller growers can take advantage.

Lots of little

Despite conventional systems becoming more widespread in Puglia with rural depopulation, it still has a greater degree of diversity than other major production regions. With this relative diversity (and less extreme climate), the harvest in Puglia has been “much less affected by the drought and heat waves than other major growing regions,” says Di Yang, a commodity market expert speaking on behalf of the Social and Economic Development Stream in the Markets and Trade Division of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in Rome. “That’s not to say Puglia hasn’t been affected by extreme climate events this year – for example, heavy rainfall in spring caused damage during the flowering season. But overall, it’s been much less bad than other major growing regions.”

According to Mladen Todorovic, an advisor on sustainable water usage in agriculture and director of Bari’s International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies, Puglia’s patchwork of olive groves offers huge potential for a sustainable shift in the industry. “There’s an enormous amount, 1 trillion euros worth, already sitting there in the EU budget for their much-touted ‘Green Deal’. It’s far from perfect, but 10% of that is nominally set aside to dedicate to rural development and sustainable agriculture. There aren’t many better uses for it sitting right in front of us.”

If farmers – particularly young farmers – can be attracted and new initiatives encouraged, then the landscape already established in Puglia can be a launchpad for showcasing some small-scale, low-impact alternatives to the vulnerable industrial production that currently dominates the market.

Fortunately, there are already signs of hope that people (and young people in particular) might have more incentive to come back to Puglia’s wonderful olive groves. Gatti sells some of his oil through XFarm Agricoltura Prossima, a local cooperative who have converted 50 acres of land confiscated from the Mafia into a social and ecologically focused agricultural hub. They offer community support, technical training, research, community events and consultation for people trying to get into food production, as well as plenty of positive vibes. There is also momentum on a ‘back to the land’ movement among disgruntled young urban professionals in Italy (and elsewhere), which could be a positive factor if channelled in the right direction. And an Italian government initiative also offers loans for farmers under 40 to buy land, in a bid to address “generational change” in agriculture in southern Italy.

Hope after Puglia’s ‘Olive Apocalypse’?

It’s a small sample, but the bits and pieces of this model emerging in the shadow of the Xylella outbreak in Puglia, show hope. They could be taken up elsewhere and serve as an example of how olive oil can continue being produced, at scale, while also being better protected against the vulnerabilities of climate change and conventional agriculture.

In time, who knows? Maybe just like 40-degree summers are becoming less extreme and even ‘normal’, we will see a ‘new normal’ for olive oil production – something that looks less like enormous, miles-long lines of monocultures across barren landscapes, and more like a vibrant patchwork of different, small production types, in keeping with their surrounding environment and connected to thriving rural communities.

Dare to dream, right?

All images courtesy of David McKenzie.

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