A bacterial outbreak attacking Italian olive groves threatens to hit the island and has the authorities scrambling to keep the pandemic at bay, Times of Malta has learnt.

The pathogenic bacteria, Xylella fastidiosa, also known as the olive leaf scorcher, has ravaged the southernmost tip of the Italian heel, infecting thousands of hectares of ancient olive groves.

The bacteria travel on cicadas and similar insects, killing infected plants by preventing water movement in the trees. This causes leaves to fall off, with branches following soon, rendering plants barren.

The greatest risk of infection comes from imports and theauthorities arerigorously inspecting ‘plant passports’ for infected trees

A report by the European Food Safety Authority published earlier this week listed Malta as being among the countries most open to risk of infection.

“The establishment and spread of the bacteria across the EU, especially among the listed countries [including Malta], is very likely,” the report, drafted by a team of 21 scientists, says.

The government’s Plant Health Directorate told this newspaper it had already started surveying olive groves, some of which are centuries old.

Fiona Grech, who coordinates the directorate’s monitoring and control department, said the greatest risk of infection came from imports and the authorities were rigorously inspecting ‘plant passports’ to ensure no infected trees made their way onto the island.

“We have been in touch with the European authorities about this and have been instructed to tighten checks and are carrying out surveys among the local plant population,” she said, adding that all local reports of infection received so far had all tested negative.

Positively identifying infection, however, is made tricky by the time lag between a plant’s infection and the initial appearance of symptoms.

Olive farmer Sam Cremona yesterday raised concerns over loose checks in place to monitor plant imports.

“We should ban olive tree imports outright until we are sure we can check all the trees coming onto the island. We don’t even have proper laboratory technology to run tests here,” he said. Mr Cremona spearheaded a campaign to reintroduce indigenous olive production and has some 10,000 trees on his Wardija plantation. He voiced concerns that his hard work could be destroyed in a matter of weeks if the infection was imported.

If the bacteria did reach the island, control would be difficult but not impossible. The EFSA report describes the outbreak in Apulia as “very severe” claiming yield losses were costly and high. Last year, the European Commission allocated about €7.5 million for fighting agricultural pests, including Xylella. However, Brussels is expected to propose new funding to fight the bacteria at a meeting of its European monitoring agency later this month.

Among the solutions touted is the introduction of sealed greenhouses and specialised pesticides.

The local authorities will be distributing information pamphlets to farmers on the bacteria in the coming days.

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