From the lab to the newsroom: telling how fake news is killing Italy’s olive trees

As an EMBL PhD student, I’ve given many talks, but the one I’ll give on 11 January at EMBL Rome is quite unusual: it won’t be about proteins or genes, but on how fake news is helping a bug kill millions of olive trees.

During my teenage years, I wanted to become a journalist and tell stories that mattered. But I also had a passion for science: observing natural phenomena, making hypotheses, and testing them seemed like great fun. Eventually, I decided to study biology in Rome and in 2011 I joined the De Renzis group at EMBL Heidelberg to find out how embryos get their shape.

During my PhD I’ve enjoyed the challenges of developing a new tool to study fruit fly development, but I’ve also struggled with the desire to write about science and fill the gap between researchers and the public. I thought writing and scientific research were two different worlds: was I stuck with the wrong career?

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so worried. Scientists and science writers have many things in common: they are curious, strive for accuracy and objectivity, draw conclusions from facts. And my PhD equipped me with most of the skills I needed to be a science writer.

That’s why, soon after graduating in 2016, I enrolled in a science writing program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, where I’ve learned about writing and journalism, and covered a wide range of topics—from exoplanet hunters to portable drug-makers that could save lives in remote areas.

But for years I had been thinking of a particular story—one about science, society, and the lack of good science communication.

It all started in 2013, when scientists found a deadly plant pathogen, called Xylella fastidiosa, in dozens of olive trees in the south of Apulia—Italy’s most south-eastern region, where I’m from. The bug, a bacterium that inhabits plants’ water-transport system, is a dreaded killer of grapevines, coffee plants, and citrus trees in the Americas, and it spreads easily by hitching a ride on insects that feed on those plants.

In southern Italy, millions of olive trees are dying. The culprits A microbe... and fake news. Credits: Giorgia Guglielmi
In southern Italy, millions of olive trees are dying. The culprits A microbe… and fake news. Credits: Giorgia Guglielmi

That was the first time the microbe had been spotted in Europe, and it was clear that it had devastating effects on olive trees, which are of great cultural and economic value to Apulia. With no treatments available, the only way to stop the disease from spreading was to uproot infected trees and use pesticides against insect vectors. But in Apulia these emergency measures were met with vehement public criticism, mostly fueled by inaccurate reporting and, in some cases, bogus news.

After a vilifying media campaign and under public pressure, in 2015 an Apulian court halted the emergency plan and accused the scientists who detected Xylella as having caused the problem in the first place.

In 2016, when I started reporting this story as part of my science writing thesis, I had a close look at the media coverage of the Xylella epidemic: Some reporters argued the emergency was a hoax to allow agricultural corporation Monsanto to sell genetically modified olive trees to Apulian farmers. (Commercial genetically modified olive trees do not exist—anywhere—right now.) Some other reporters argued that, instead of being removed, the diseased plants should be cured with an “enriched” water developed by a homeopath who allegedly cured 20 trees—but provided no evidence for it. So I started asking myself why people would believe in news that was not supported by facts.

“Italy has no immune system against pseudo-science,” Luciano Beneduce, a microbiologist at the University of Foggia, told me. Almost half of 16- to 65-year-old Italians are functionally illiterate, meaning they attended school but are unable to engage in activities that require writing and reading skills beyond a basic level. These people struggle to understand a medicine label or fill out a job application, and are easy prey for bogus news.

What’s more, Italy doesn’t have a strong culture of science communication: Italian universities are traditionally reluctant to speak to the public and, unlike their American or British counterparts, Italy’s National Academy of Sciences and scientific agencies rarely take a stance on science issues in society. In this communication void, chatter prevailed, and Xylella kept spreading and killing olive trees.

The lack of a strategy to keep the epidemic in check, the criminal charges against the researchers, and the public resistance against emergency measures have allowed the bug to infect ten million olive trees, causing losses for one billion euros. Now, the risk is that the disease will spread to the rest of Italy and eventually to the entire Mediterranean basin, with catastrophic consequences.

All this, and more, became part of my thesis—a 6000-word feature that I discussed at MIT in May 2017. (A short excerpt is available here.) Since then, I’ve regularly written about science: After a stint at Science, I’m joining the Nature news team, where I hope to learn more about good journalism and powerful writing.

Meanwhile, I am excited to share my story about the Xylella outbreak with scientists and the public at EMBL Rome. I hope that my talk will spark interest in how to bring people closer to science and better address scientific issues that impact society.

Author: Guest author: Giorgia Guglielmi

Giorgia Guglielmi is a science writer based in Washington, D.C. She received a PhD in Biology from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and a Master’s in Science Writing from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has written and edited pieces for publications including Science, NOVA Next, and EMBLetc. When not writing, she can be found running at the National Mall.

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