Q24N – Nine scientists are being investigated in Italy after months of accusations that their research had hastened the spread of a pathogen deadly to olive trees, enabling an outbreak of a disease that is ravaging olive groves in Puglia, Italy.
Public prosecutors announced the formal investigation at a press conference in Lecce in southern Italy on December 18.
At the same time, they ordered an immediate halt to measures put in place to contain the spread of the disease, which include chopping down and burning infected and vulnerable trees, and spraying insecticide. The prosecutors argue that too little is understood about the science of the disease to justify such measures.
“We are shocked,” says Donato Boscia, head of the Bari unit of Italy’s Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection. He is one of the accused, who, according to local newspaper reports of the press conference, are suspected of “negligent spreading of the plant disease, presenting false information and materials to officials, environmental pollution and disfiguring natural beauty”.
Nature Magazine reports that the researchers are accused of “negligent spreading of the plant disease, presenting false information and materials to officials, environmental pollution and disfiguring natural beauty”. The scientists say these claims are outrageous.
Xylella is endemic in parts of the Americas, including Costa Rica, Brazil and California, and had not been seen in Europe until 2013, when it was identified in southern Italy. The particular strain of Xylella involved in the Puglia outbreak has been reported before only in Costa Rica.
Most scientists who have examined the issue consider it likely that the disease arrived with ornamental plants imported from Costa Rica, which harbour the same strain of Xylella.
Earlier this year, Nature reported that local campaigners were beginning to blame scientists for the introduction of the pathogen. Prosecutors argue that the bacteria plaguing trees in southern Italy may have originated from samples sent to Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Bari from California in 2010.
The scientific facts just don’t seem to line up with the allegations — and yet they persist.
Under European Union rules, Italy is obliged to carry out a scientifically based containment plan to stop the disease from spreading to other EU countries. In addition to culling infected trees, this plan involves destroying healthy trees to create buffer zones. But farmers, supported by environmental activists who deplored the destruction of ancient trees, have protested against its implementation. Individual court rulings have found in their favour, stopping tree felling and the spraying of insecticide on their land.
On December 10, just over a week before Italian public prosecutors announced their investigation, the European Commission opened an infringement procedure over Italy’s failure to carry out containment measures quickly enough. Commission spokesman Enrico Brivio says that he does not know what will happen now that Italian courts have blocked the entire containment plan. “Xylella in all its strains is the most dangerous pathogen for plants, and epidemics have huge economic impact,” he says. “The emergency measures are necessary and need to be implemented.”
Prosecutors, who had confiscated computers and documents from scientific institutes in May, have not made public any details of their evidence against the scientists. But they say that they continue to worry that the deadly Xylella strain may have been imported from California for a training workshop at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Bari in 2010, and may then have been released into the environment. They say they are also concerned that the strain may have escaped into the environment from field experiments.
Boschia said that he had been told not to comment on details of the investigation. But scientists have previously pointed out that the Xylella strain in question was not used in the workshop.
This isn’t the first time Italian scientists have faced prosecution for doing their jobs: In 2012, six researchers were charged with manslaughter for failing to prevent 300 deaths in a 2009 earthquake. Right after the ruling, Richard Walters of Oxford University told Reuters, rather presciently, that a case like this one would “[set] a very dangerous precedent.” Walters went on to express fear that the ruling would “discourage other scientists from offering their advice on natural hazards and trying to help society in this way.”
The conviction, which Wired rightly called a “Kafkaesque nightmare,” was overturned in 2014. A public official who was charged along with the scientists was the only one whose conviction stuck — because while the scientists had just been passing along the data that they collected, the official arguably failed to communicate it properly. But the ruling wasn’t universally accepted, especially by families of those killed by the quake.
Whether or not the Xylella fastidiosa researchers truly released the pathogen through negligence or malice, the fact remains that olive ebola is there to stay. As of this summer, some 10 percent of trees in the region were infected, and olive oil production was on a steep decline. Scientists argue that the best way to contain the plague is to burn down infected trees and those in the surrounding area, but Italian courts have halted those containment efforts as part of the investigation.