A new study about a relentless pathogen hitting olive trees in Europe has bleak projections for the industry, with the disease on track to drive up the price of olive oil in supermarkets around the world. The disease is known formally as olive quick decline syndrome, but more commonly as "olive leprosy," reports the Guardian. It was first detected in Italy in 2013, and it has now spread to an estimated 17% of that nation's olive-producing areas. But the disease also has a foothold in nations including Spain, Greece, Portugal, and France. The disease is spread by insects—specifically by something called a spittlebug—and it has no cure, per the BBC. In a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers looked at a 50-year projection for Italy, Spain, and Greece and estimated damages north of $21 billion if the pathogen runs unchecked.
The problem, though, is that remedies are expensive and of the long-range variety. Researchers say farmers need to remove not only infected trees but seemingly healthy ones nearby to create a buffer zone. And because the pathogen has no cure, the best long-range option may be to replace current trees with disease-resistant varieties, once developed. Taking such measures would significantly reduce the 50-year economic toll, say researchers, but in any scenario they expect supplies to diminish and olive oil prices to rise. Also, "we did not account for the cultural heritage value associated with these trees," says researcher Kevin Schneider of Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Farmers may be working on the same groves once tended by their grandparents. "So how do you put an economic number on the loss of something like this?" (Read more olive oil stories.)