Italy’s Olive-Oil Industry Sees Simmering Threats from Climate Change and Nasty Bacteria

By Eric Reguly
ROME, Nov 6 2019 – On a warm Saturday morning in late October, the silver-green leaves of the 200 productive olive trees on a rolling country property in Umbria, in central Italy, sparkled in the brilliant sun. Fausto Venturi, a local farmer who devotes autumn weekends to making olive oil, could not have been happier.

The weather was perfect for harvesting the Moraiolo olives. The small, round green fruit is indigenous to Umbria and Tuscany, prized by olive growers for its high yield and among connoisseurs for the oil’s gorgeous emerald-green colour and fruity aroma, with hints of artichokes and herbs. Better yet, the trees were in near full bloom, signalling a rare bumper crop. Climate change, bug infestations and disease, notably the horrific Xylella fastidiosa bacterium that is killing millions of olive trees in southern Italy, has made life somewhere between difficult and miserable – depending on the region – for Italy’s crucial olive-oil industry in recent years.

The European Commission’s website calls Xylella “one of the most dangerous plant bacteria worldwide, causing a variety of diseases, with huge economic impact for agriculture, public gardens and the environment.” It can also attack stone fruits such as cherries, almonds and plums.

The bacterium is terrorizing olive-orchard owners in Puglia, in the heel of the Italian boot. Puglia and Calabria – the toe – account for more than two-thirds of Italian olive-oil production (Umbria provides only 2 per cent). If those two regions were to get wiped out, the enormous industry – supplied by about 250 million trees on 700,000 olive farms covering 1.1 million hectares – would be moribund. That scenario is not out of the question. The bacterium arrived in southern Puglia, near the baroque city of Lecce, in 2013. The source is thought to be an infected ornamental coffee plant imported from Costa Rica. It has acted as a wrecking machine, infecting about 21 million trees, according to Coldiretti, Italy’s agriculture association.

Industry estimates put Italian olive-oil production in the disastrous 2016-17 harvest at only 200,000 tonnes, down by more than half from the previous year, owing to a particularly nasty combination of extreme weather events, a fruit-fly attack and Xylella. Olive-orchard owners such as Mr. Venturi say “normal” harvest years are becoming rarer.

The disease is carried by a tiny insect known by various names, including the spittlebug. The bacteria spread by the bugs latches onto xylem tubes, the trees’ water-and-nutrient-transportation system, producing what the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) calls an “internal drought.” The weakened branches, leaves and fruit die, then the whole tree withers away, producing eerie ghost orchards. The infected trees are difficult to quarantine quickly; the long incubation period means visible symptoms often don’t arise until seven months to a year after the infection sets in. “There is no cure for it,” said Shoki Al-Dobai, FAO’s transboundary plant pests and diseases team leader in Rome. “It’s possible that it could keep spreading north. That would be a disaster.”

Infected trees and those around them have to be destroyed, sometimes in the presence of weeping farmers. Many of the olive trees in Puglia are hundreds of years old, and at least one is 3,000 – it was ancient before Jesus was born. There are stories of farmers chaining themselves to their cherished trees to try to spare them from the chainsaw. But the Puglia tree cull, which was way too slow at first, continues and is being monitored closely by agriculture officials at the European Commission.

Arrigo Peri, an orthodontist in Rome, lives in fear because his family owns an organic 1,000-tree olive orchard near the coastal city of Bari, about 80 kilometres northwest of Puglia’s infected zones. He’s had a string of bad harvests owing to extreme weather, including drought and frost (which cut his normal yield by 80 per cent last year) and severe olive-fly infestations that may be the result of climate change. And now the threat of Xylella. “My last good yield was three years ago,” he said. “Yes, we are getting worried about Xylella. It’s the last thing we need.”

The disease hasn’t hit Umbria yet, but a subspecies has been spotted right next door in Tuscany and a few other parts of Southern Europe, including Corsica and Spain’s Balearic Islands. Mr. Venturi and other olive-oil makers are terrified that Xylella will plow through his region at some point. “We are praying it doesn’t arrive, but it could,” he said.

In a recent report, Martin Godefroid of the French National Institute for Agriculture Research, said that generally warmer temperatures are making life easier for Xylella, which is a tropical disease. He said that “climate change may strongly impact [the bacterium’s] distribution.”

Consumers in Italy and other countries who cherish healthy and flavoursome extra-virgin olive oil – which is made by pressing the olives, rather than using heat or chemicals to help extract the oil – are paying the price. Retail prices are rising as weather-related shortages develop, and the quality among cheaper brands is falling as blends of foreign or low-quality bulk oils make it onto supermarket shelves. “The oil you now buy in supermarkets won’t be 100-per-cent Italian,” Mr. Venturi said. “It might be mixed with Tunisian and Moroccan oils.”

Italy is Europe’s second-largest olive-oil producer, after Spain, and accounts for a quarter of the continent’s olive harvest. The industry is worth billions of euros a year. In most of the world, families make do with cheap, mass-produced oils made from palm, canola, corn and other vegetable plants for their intake of fats. But in the Mediterranean countries, where the vast majority of the world’s olives are grown, meals devoid of virgin olive oil are virtually unthinkable.

Mr. Venturi, 49, said an entirely unexpected deep freeze last spring in Umbria sent yields tumbling. The trees on this particular property, located about a 20-minute drive from Spoleto, a medieval gem of a city and UNESCO heritage site, produced only about 85 litres of oil in the fall; this year, he expects 320. The oil will sell for about €12 ($17.50) a litre in the local market (he kicks back about 10 per cent, in the form of oil, to the owners of the property).

After he and his colleague covered the ground with enormous fine-mesh nets, used to catch the harvested olives, they fired up a small diesel generator to power an air compressor, which in turn powered the thrashing mechanical rakes that shake the branches and comb off the olives. “Watch out for vipers here,” he warned. “They’re poisonous.”

The biggest, healthiest trees let drop 15 kilograms to 20 kilograms of olives. After a couple of hours of exhausting work, they filled two large containers. Harvesting all of the property’s trees would take two men three or four days, from dawn to dusk.

The olives were transported by tractor to the local frantoio (olive press), in this case a private business called Frantoio Filippi that presses olives from its own 1,000-tree farm and those from nearby farms.

Two years ago, the Filippi family installed a new pressing system, an array of tubes, belts, crushers, mixers, centrifuges and filters that transforms raw olives into oil within two hours. The olives, many with leaves still attached, are dumped into a hopper. Leaf removal and olive washing are the next stages, followed by the grinding of the olives by both disks and hammers. The result is a thick slurry that looks like green pasta sauce and is, in fact, called an olive pasta. It’s pumped into a centrifuge that separates the water from the oil.

After passing through filters, the final product is a dazzling, almost fluorescent, emerald oil that emerged from the spigot carrying the faint smell of apples. “Every terrain produces olives with a different smell, depending on the soil, light and other conditions,” said Federico Caporali, 43, co-owner of Frantoio Filippi.

He said this season was much better than some of the previous years, when extreme temperatures and too much rain sent production plummeting. “But we hope Xylella doesn’t come here,” he said.

This story was originally published by The Globe and Mail, Canada

Burkina Faso: Climate Change Triggers Rural Exodus

A zone of Baobab reforestation in Burkina Faso. The Sahel is experiencing an overall decrease in rainfall, but also a depletion of soils due to agricultural overexploitation and progressive deforestation of the original savannahs. Courtesy: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

By Issa Sikiti da Silva
OUAGADOUGOU, Nov 6 2019 – Ibrahim Harouna and his neighbours sit under a tree at his uncle’s house, playing chess and chatting amid the simmering heat of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

This is how he has been spending most of his time in the year and a half since he lost his job. Harouna worked as farm labourer. But the seasonal small-scale farmer he worked for in northern Burkina Faso let him and two other workers go because their services were no longer needed amid dwindling harvests.

Production had begun failing as desertification and drought took their toll on the land — which had become severely degraded, with half of the farmland soil turning to sand.

The economy in this Sahelian nation of 20.5 million people, located in the hinterland and within the confines of the Sahara, depends heavily on agriculture, forestry and livestock farming.

The sector is dominated by small-scale farms of less than five hectares and its main products are sorghum, millet and maize (the most produced in terms of volume), according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Cotton exports are still dominant and represent about 60 percent of total agricultural exports, according to the World Bank.

In “Dégradation des sols en agriculture minière au Burkina Faso”, S.B. Taonda, R. Bertrand, J. Dickey, J.L. Morel and K. Sanon explained that after five to 10 years of cultivation, the soil is no longer able to ensure the mineral and water supply of the main food crop (sorghum), leading to yields collapse.

A visibly stressed Harouna seems to agree, telling IPS: “We have been working on that land for nine years, doing the same thing year in and year out.”

Despite the country’s Sahelian zone in the north receiving less than 600mm average annual rainfall, Harouna says that the previous had been productive: sales were good, money was coming in, and wages were regularly paid.

But nothing lasts forever. Desertification became more prevalent and the honeymoon came to an abrupt end. He recounts: “As time went by, we noticed that temperatures kept unusually rising and the sun became harsher and the rain disappeared. The crops became stunted while others dried out, as the land started to turn into something like sand.”

Confines of the Sahara

Land degradation poses a serious threat to the sustainable development of Burkina Faso. One-third of its national territory, over nine million hectares of productive land, is degraded. This is estimated to expand at an average of 360,000 hectares per year, according to the FAO.

The Sahel is experiencing an overall decrease in rainfall, but also a depletion of soils due to agricultural overexploitation and progressive deforestation of the original savannahs by cutting firewood, bush fires and stray animals, the NGO SOS Enfants explains.

“Climate changes are evident throughout Burkina Faso. The eastern and southwestern parts of the country, which generally have more favourable weather, are increasingly hit by high temperatures and pockets of drought,” the U.N. Development Programme says on

From employing 90 percent of the country’s almost 7-million strong workforce in 2012, as per FAO figures, the agriculture sector now provides 80 percent of all jobs, still accounting for a third of the country’s GDP. However, more than 3.5 million people are food insecure, according to a USAID report.

Farmers in Burkina Faso, and especially those living in the Sahelian areas of this country, are now facing a serious problem of food security and growing impoverishment, SOS Enfants has pointed out. Conflicts over land use and massive migrations are persistent.

Conflict lingers

Armed conflict and terrorism have exacerbated food insecurity, with regular attacks being perpetrated against security forces and civilians by unknown gunmen. Nearly 600 civilians have been killed, and scores wounded in recent years, according to independent figures.

Nearly half a million people were forced from their homes as increased insecurity resulted in a deepening and unprecedented humanitarian situation.

With an urbanisation rate of 5.29 percent – according to Index Mundi figures – Burkina Faso seems to be experiencing one of the highest urbanisation rates in Africa and in the world, as women, children and elderly people flock to the cities, fleeing from climate change challenges, lingering poverty and armed conflict.

“In Burkina, the problem is not the functioning of the democratic system. The crisis is the spread of jihadist violence. [Former President Blaise] Compaoré used to come to understandings with armed groups in Mali, and in return, they left Burkina alone. That did not help Mali, of course,” Paul Melly, Chatham House Africa consultant, tells IPS. The U.N. has stated that some 300,000 people have fled jihadist violence that spilled over from Mali.

“But the present Burkina administration does not cut these sorts of deals, and this leaves the country more exposed,” he points out.

“Moreover,” he says, “Burkina’s security systems used to be strongly oriented towards loyalty towards Compaoré, so his departure left these structures weakened and the current government now had to rebuild them in a way that is compatible with the democratic system. That is a slow and difficult process.”

Climate migrants

After Harouna and his colleagues lost their job, they headed to Ouaga (short for Ouagadougou) to stay with their respective families. With nothing much to do, they believe their only option is to leave the country, adding their names to a growing list of people pushed out of their homes by the devastating impacts of climate change.

“My former colleagues have already left the country, one is in Morocco as we speak, looking for a way to cross over to Spain and the other one is in Benin, where he intends to take the boat to get either to Equatorial Guinea or Gabon,” Harouna says.

More than 143 million people are set to become climate migrants by 2050 in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, escaping crop failure, water scarcity, and sea-level rise, according to the World Bank projections.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main U.N. authority on climate science, has reiterated that the changes brought on by the climate crisis will influence migration patterns.

“As for me, God-willing next week I’m heading to Niger to try to reach Algeria where my friends live and work in the construction sector,” says Harouna.

Future degradation of land used for agriculture and farming, the disruption of fragile ecosystems and the depletion of precious natural resources like fresh water will directly impact people’s lives and homes, according to Dina Ionesco, head of Migration, Environment and Climate Change Division at the U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Former FAO Director General José Graziano da Silva said back in February 2018 that the rehabilitation of degraded land was a priority for Burkina Faso.

The U.N. agency and other partners have been tasked to implement the Action Against Desertification (AAD), a programme meant to bring land restoration to scale.

  • AAD supports local communities, governments and civil society in six African countries – Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Gambia, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal – as well as in Fiji and Haiti, to sustainably manage and restore their drylands and fragile ecosystems affected by desertification, land degradation and drought.
  • This initiative contributes to the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and the Sahel (GGW), to U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) national action plans, and promotes south-south cooperation in Africa, Caribbean and Pacific countries.
  • In Burkina Faso, AAD supports land restoration in the provinces of Soum and Séno in Sahel region, using the specialised Delfino plough for land preparation in a view to bring restoration to scale.

But all of these interventions have come just a little too late for young men like Harouna.

“Put yourself in these young men’s shoes,” Harouna’s uncle, who asked not to be named, contributes to the conversation for the first time since the interview started. “What would you do if something like this happens to you? There are no jobs in this country, no peace, no opportunity for the youth and not even good politicians.”

“Just look around us now, the climate is challenging our land, the only source of our livelihoods. Terrorists are ruining our lives and our children’s future, and the only way out of this mess is to go elsewhere to look for a better life,” the uncle, who is sponsoring Harouna’s irregular migration to Algeria, tells IPS.


Europe’s Green Deal is Turning Red

Credit: UNDP

By Delara Burkhardt
KIEL, Germany, Nov 6 2019 – Global temperatures are set to rise by a catastrophic 3°C by the end of the century unless we take major action. The next 10 years in particular are crucial.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body for assessing the science related to climate change, has pointed this out over and over again. Steps to restrict global warming to 1.5°C must be taken within this time frame. In short, we need huge efforts to achieve the seemingly impossible: to make our continent climate-neutral within a generation.

This is a global challenge that takes more than fine words. Instead, it must be tackled head-on by politicians from local councils to the international stage – and, of course, in the European Union. The EU is supposed to be climate-neutral by no later than 2050. That, at least, is the will of the European Parliament and the social democratic faction.

As first deputy to new Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Dutch social democrat Frans Timmermans will be responsible for the European Green Deal. It’s intended to become the new Commission’s ‘hallmark’ initiative.

The full details of this deal are not yet known. However, in his hearing by the European Parliament before taking office, Timmermans explained several key points and initiatives. These suggest that there will be new ambition in European environmental and climate policy, as called for by the social democrats in the European Parliament. European environmental and climate policymakers certainly won’t be bored over the next five years.

Delara Burkhardt

Enshrining climate protection into law

At the core of the Green Deal is a European Climate Law that’s supposed to enshrine in European law the goal of making Europe climate-neutral by 2050. Timmermans aims to submit a legislative proposal for this in his first 100 days in office.

This means that the EU is also raising its medium-term climate targets for 2030 from the current greenhouse gas reduction level of 40 per cent. The social democratic group is pushing for this figure to be raised to 55 per cent.

Although environmental associations and the majority of the European Parliament welcome these initiatives, their success is by no means guaranteed. Poland, Hungary and Slovakia are opposed to the goal of climate neutrality by 2050. Only eight EU member states have clearly committed themselves to the target of 55 per cent by 2030: France, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Latvia and Luxembourg.

Public money must be used solely for public goods – such as protecting the climate and the environment.

The progressive parties in the European Parliament and civil society have a lot of work to do to convert these ambitious announcements into actual policy. This is particularly the case for Germany, which will assume the presidency of the European Council in the second half of 2020 and therefore represent all national governments of the EU in negotiations with the European Parliament and the European Commission.

Green investments

But as well as setting higher targets, ensuring greater climate protection means instigating specific measures or tightening existing rules. For instance, increasing medium- and long-term climate targets would require the revision of all EU climate legislation.

The European Emissions Trading System (ETS), which currently provides for a CO2 price per tonne for the energy and heat supply sectors and heavy industry in an auction process, should be extended to road traffic.

Air traffic should also feature more prominently than at present. A CO2 tariff at the external borders of the EU should ensure fair pricing of products’ carbon footprint that are imported from outside the EU and originate from countries where climate regulations are less strict. This could ensure that European industry can compete with the global market on fair terms.

Moreover, the Sustainable Europe Investment Plan should mobilise a trillion euros over the next decade. For this, the European Investment Bank shall be transformed into a European Climate Bank to channel 50 per cent of its investment into fighting the climate crisis.

Furthermore, a European standard for green bonds should be devised. I expect both the ‘Green’ and the ‘Deal’ elements of the European Green Deal to be taken seriously here: the EU budget must be rigorously geared towards protecting the climate and the environment. Public money must be used solely for public goods – such as protecting the climate and the environment.

A social deal

Frans Timmermans sees climate policy from more than just an environmental perspective. He’s also aware of the social dimension, which has always been a particular concern of European social democrats. A new Just Transition Fund is supposed to help coal-mining regions with phasing out the extraction of the fossil fuel and its conversion into electricity.

A training initiative should give workers the skills for new, clean production processes and equip them for new branches of industry in the climate-friendly economy. New programmes for making homes and public institutions more energy-efficient could create local jobs and reduce private energy costs.

This can be a way of tackling the huge problem of energy poverty in Europe: one in 10 of all Europeans – some 50 million people – cannot afford to keep their home warm enough in winter.

National governments must also become more active in financing and investment, and in reducing subsidies for fossil fuels.

Furthermore, the European Green Deal is not just aimed at combating the climate crisis. It also sets out measures to protect biodiversity, reduce air, water and soil pollution, protect and restore forests, reform European agricultural policy from an environmental perspective and advance the circular economy.

The deal therefore provides the opportunity to create momentum for ambitious environmental and social change. This would also be in line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, to which the EU and the whole international community have signed up.

They define sustainable development as a combination of economic development, social progress and environmental protection. Sustainability can only be achieved with a fair approach.

The EU’s limitations

However, the European Union is not omnipotent. Its institutions establish the parameters and set the targets, while national governments are largely responsible for actual implementation.

They must introduce additional measures in tandem with European climate policy in order to cushion the social consequences – as social policy is still mainly the preserve of the member states.

Strong welfare states with robust social systems are essential in the fight against the climate crisis. They enable equal opportunities, access to the labour market, fair working conditions, social security and inclusion in times of rapid change in the (employment) world.

This is the key to shaping a socially just transition to a climate-neutral future. In this way, the social aspect triggers a more ambitious approach to the environment – rather than delay and hesitation on climate policy, as centre-right parties often pursue it.

National governments must also become more active in financing and investment, and in reducing subsidies for fossil fuels. No great miracles can be expected here from the EU budget, which accounts for just 2 per cent of total public spending in Europe.

In view of this, the German federal government’s recently adopted climate package can be seen as merely a start. More needs to be done.

It’s too late for big speeches. ‘Business as usual’ is not an option. It’s time for decisive action. We will work on this in the European Parliament, spurred on by the clear signal from citizens in the European elections and the weekly climate strikes.

This article first appeared in International Politics and Society published by the International Political Analysis Unit of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Hiroshimastrasse 28, D-10785 Berlin.