France bans imports of Puglia vegetables as olive bacteria starts mini trade war

ROME – Italian farm associations accused France on Friday of starting a trade war by announcing a ban on imports of vegetables from the southern Puglia region because of a bacterial outbreak that has infected hundreds of thousands of olive trees.

French Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll announced the blockade Friday, saying he was taking action on a national level pending a decision by the full European Union on a proposed cull of some 10 per cent of the estimated 10 million trees in the hard-hit Lecce area of Puglia.

Already, European Commission officials have expressed mounting alarm about Puglia’s xylella fastidiosa infection and have said Italy should consider cutting down the infected olive trees and creating a buffer zone to save the estimated 90 per cent of trees that aren’t infected.

Puglian farmers have refused, saying the uprooting of trees — some of them hundreds of years old — won’t halt the bacteria’s spread since trees can be infected without showing symptoms. They say the EU should instead be investing in research to wipe out the bacteria.

“If we cut down 1 million trees this year, we’ll find another million infected a year later,” said Giovanni Melcarne, a Puglian olive producer and activist with the Voice of Olive commission opposing the cull. “We’ll never be able to resolve it.”

Experts from the 28 EU nations meet again April 21 to discuss a unified EU position. A decision on action needs a “qualified majority,” which Italy couldn’t veto.

In a statement announcing the boycott, Le Foll cited the risk of contamination on French vegetables if the bacteria were to be introduced on French territory.

“There is no way to directly combat the bacteria,” he warned. “Once contaminated, only the complete uprooting of the vegetables can eradicate the infection.”

Italy’s Coldiretti farm lobby said France’s “disproportionate and disrespectful” decision amounted to a trade war and demanded the Italian government protest.

“If the blockade is put into effect, it will create enormous economic harm to Puglia and Italy, and put at risk commercial agriculture relations between the two countries at a difficult time of economic crisis,” Coldiretti warned.

The outbreak, which has been around for several years but has become critical, comes after Italy suffered a devastating olive harvest last year because of poor weather and attacks by the olive fly. Puglia, which is Italy’s top olive oil producer, saw its oil production fall by 35 per cent last year, according to statistics from the Unaprol olive oil consortium.


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