A prosecutor in southern Italy has sequestered 2,000 olive trees that had been due to be culled after a deadly bacterium blighted last year’s crop, and placed 10 people under investigation over their handling of the outbreak.
The probe in the olive grove-dotted Puglia region at Italy’s heel interrupted an emergency cull of both infested plants and healthy ones near them which the European Union ordered in April to try to stop the infection spreading.
Chainsaws have been turned off while a Puglia prosecutor investigates the 10 on suspicion of various crimes including spreading the disease, destroying natural beauty and lying while in public office, a legal document showed.
Among those under investigation is the special commissioner put in place to handle the epidemic, the first of its kind in the European Union, which broke out last November.
Being put under investigation does not imply guilt and does not necessarily lead to charges.
Italy is the world’s second-largest producer of olive oil after Spain, exporting hundreds of thousands of litres a year, contributing to an overall turnover that agriculture group Coldiretti estimates at 2 billion euros ($2.17 billion).
But the harvest plummeted last year as the Xylella fastidiosa pathogen – dubbed “olive tree leprosy” by some farming associations – dried out the trees, leaving their once-pale green leaves looking scorched.
Weakened by the pathogen, which the EU says is one of the most dangerous plant bacteria worldwide, the doomed plants then endured a fruit fly blight and unusually wet weather.