As if the coronavirus outbreak weren’t enough, farmers in northern Italy are also facing a battle with a devastating plant pest that could wipe out fruit and vegetable crops this summer.
The European Commission approved emergency support this month to help farmers in six northern Italian regions fight off the Asian brown marmorated stink bug, a voracious invasive species that caused an estimated €500 million of damage in 2019 alone, Brussels says.
Despite the complete lockdown of Italy during the coronavirus outbreak, farmers are still working in the fields. But the monitoring of pests is being hampered by human health precautions. The region of Lombardy, for instance, suspended its pest monitoring service last week.
This may be a worry. “The fight against Halyomorpha halys, aka the brown marmorated stink bug … is conducted via intense monitoring by the Lombardy Regional Plant Health Service,” explained Ana Cristina Cardoso, a scientific officer at the EU’s Joint Research Centre.
Entire harvests of fruit such as pears, peaches, nectarines, apples, kiwis, cherries and apricots could be spoiled by the stink bug, which can gorge on over 100 different plant species and is suspected to have arrived in Italy from the United States and Switzerland. It was first detected in Italy in 2012.
“The financial resources currently available are not sufficient to compensate farmers for the significant losses caused by the pest during the last season” — Mariangela Ciampitti of the Lombardy Regional Plant Health Service
“Lots of farmers have lost production, so we need to pay close attention to it,” said Anna Rufolo from farmers’ lobby CIA-Agricoltori Italiani, in an email.
“We would like to have more support for nets against insects, one of the most important tools for it,” she added.
The Italian government has passed a law approving the use of the predatory samurai wasp, Trissolcus japonicus, to combat the bug, and the Lombardy region has invested over €10 million in protective nets for orchards in recent years.
But Lombardy’s own regional phytosanitary service believes this funding is not enough.
“The financial resources currently available are not sufficient to compensate farmers for the significant losses caused by the pest during the last season,” said Mariangela Ciampitti, a manager at the service.
“Fighting the pest is necessary, regardless of the COVID-19 crisis, because the damage caused by [the bug] is very serious and often no longer sustainable by farmers.
“It is difficult, at this moment, to predict whether the [human] health emergency will have further negative influences on fruit and vegetables producer organizations.”
The EU’s measures, agreed unanimously by the 27 member countries, aim to recompense some of the farmers’ losses from 2019 and will bolster their access to emergency funding for crisis prevention under the Common Agricultural Policy.
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