Insect Infestation Threatens Italy’s Supply of Olive Oil

Hang in there!
Hang in there! Photo: Shutterstock

The fabled olive groves of Tuscany and Puglia have fallen victim to a particularly pestilent species of fruit fly that has a knack for buzzing around trees, burrowing into the fruit, and laying eggs. Production of the extra-virgin stuff and everything else down to pomace is way off as a result, and the Times reports that prices will spike as a result, likely beginning in February or March of 2015.

How bad is it? One producer whose family has been in the game for some 600 years told the paper that 18,000 of his trees were completely out of commission this year. As a result, his local mill’s entire seasonal run was 20,000 kilos, the same amount the mill crushed every single day for two months straight at the height of production in 2013. Even though food-shortage stories these days tend to be about a dime a dozen as Siberian kale is frilly and twee, this one has an added layer of ineluctable grimness: Hail, flooding, and other eschatological weather patterns have also kicked in to reduce Italy’s overall 2014 yields by “about 35 percent.”

These fruit flies tend to go through a sort of spring-break-style spree in April, it turns out, then surge again in the early fall, right when the olives are at their best. All those holes left by the larval flies, chestburster from Alien-style, tend to attract mold, and when olive oil can be produced from the borehole-drilled stuff, it is reportedly higher in oleic acid, has an abbreviated shelf life, and tends to make the old-timers depressed. Worst of all, those flies go on to feast on melons as soon as they grow up.

The result is an uncertain market for cold-pressed stuff, threatening everything from sandwiches in Bensonhurst to the pass at Del Posto, where Mark Ladner holsters ten recent-vintage olive oils with entirely different flavor profiles to finish pasta dishes. Farmers in Italy are hoping that subzero temperatures will wipe out their fly problems, but in the meantime, they’re not the only ones fighting for their time-honored food culture: This year’s drought in Spain diminished its own crops, and the season extending through fall of next year is also expected to come with record-high prices.


Insect Infestation Threatens Italy’s Supply of Olive Oil