A plant pathogen known as Xylella fastidiosa has been affecting olive trees, which are a critical part of Italian culture and heritage. The movement to fell the affected trees has been met with resistance by the locals.
X. fastidiosa is a bacterial species that feeds on the xylem of plants and is spread by insects. In the past, the most severe economic effects of the X. fastidiosa were felt in the US and Brazil.
Preventing the spread of X. fastidiosa requires early detection to ensure that the infected area remains small. Unfortunately, it can take 12 to 14 months for trees to show symptoms of infection, which makes it tricky to contain a potential epidemic. As a result, containing the infection generally requires the removal of asymptomatic infected plants. However, the prospect of killing trees that don’t appear to be sick is particularly tricky in Italy due to the cultural significance of olive trees.
In southern Italy, olive trees are planted to mark major life events, including births of family members. This tradition goes back for generations, and the local olive groves serve as a reminder of families’ historical roots in the area. Cutting down olive trees means destroying physical manifestations of the local history and culture. Not surprisingly, the people who live there have responded with distrust of scientists, environmentalists, and lawmakers.
The European Commission has made efforts to manage the epidemic and reduce the spread of disease, but these actions have been challenged by local environmentalists and politicians, who are responding in part to public distrust of science. This distrust of science has led to local conspiracy theories regarding the plant epidemic.
In June, the European Court of Justice ruled that the European Commission’s recommended X. fastidiosa control measures were legal and should be implemented despite local politicians’ objections.
Regardless of the country, mistrust of science is an issue with no easy solution, and it continues to influence lawmakers’ ability to implement data-backed best practices and policy recommendations.
If X. fastidiosa control measures are not implemented due to the public mistrust of science, the consequences for European plant life could be dire.