An insect from North America is wreaking havoc on Italy’s pine nut harvest, and a tiny wasp may be able to help. Megan Williams reports from Tuscany.
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LISA MULLINS: I’m Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Italian pine nuts are considered among the most delectable in the world. Pine nuts are also known as pinoli. They’re a key ingredient in Italy’s traditional pesto sauce. But Italy’s pine nut harvest has plummeted in recent years and the culprit hails from here, in North America. Megan Williams reports from Tuscany.
MEGAN WILLIAMS: At a pinoli factory in southern Tuscany, a worker picks out empty pine nut shells from roasting nuts that are spilling off a conveyer belt. Dressed in a white lab coat, Elena Lanini is supervising the process. She runs the factory in a small building just a couple of miles from the Mediterranean Coast. Lanini’s business thrived for decades on an almost inexhaustible supply of Italian nuts. That is, until six years ago, when she noticed a drastic drop in pine nut production. Now, the pine nuts Lanini is roasting here all come from Turkey and Portugal, which she says are the next best options after Italian ones. China grows pine nuts, too, but Lanini says their quality is too low for her to consider processing.
ELENA LANINI: At least 2,000 jobs have been lost because of this pine nut crisis. And that is a big impact on a quality Italian product. Which by the way is used in all sorts of recipes. Not just pesto. They’re in lots of traditional desserts and dishes. I don’t even know all of them.
WILLIAMS: At first, Italy’s pinoli producers blamed unusually cold weather for the crash in production. Then producers started noticing strange insects on the pine trees. That’s when they found out what was really to blame.
PIO ROVERSI: Leptoglossus occidentalis. This bug caused a crash of the pines production in Italy.
WILLIAMS: Pio Roversi is a researcher at the Center for Plant Protection from Pests in Florence. He was the first to study the inch-long leptoglossus in Italy, which are known as the “western conifer seed bug,” of “stink bug,” in the US and Canada. Native to Western North America, the bug landed in Northern Italy, probably hidden in wooden crates, in the late 1990s. With devastating speed for a slow-moving insect, it travelled south along Italy’s coast, munching on pinoli all along the way. As pine nut production fell, Italian producers started sounding the alarm.
WARD STRONG: I received an email out of the blue that said we have this problem. A big problem. Can you help, can you collaborate with us?
WILLIAMS: That’s Ward Strong, cone and seed entomologist with the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture in Canada. Roversi contacted him and other researchers in the hope that someone in North America was already working on the problem. As it turned out, Strong and his team were the only ones in the world who’d found a possible way to reduce the bug’s numbers. A species of little wasps that kill the leptoglossus bug’s eggs. Now the researchers are collaborating. Roversi visited North America this summer and brought some of the wasps back to Italy. He’s testing them in a lab and is preparing to release them in nature in the coming months. Strong says time is of the essence in the fight against the invasive bugs.
STRONG: Since the first introduction, here in Italy, they’re moving. And by now they’ve been found in Croatia, out through Poland, to Latvia, around to Belgium, in through France and we now know they are in Portugal as well.
WILLIAMS: Italian pine nut producer Elena Lanini feels the urgency, too.
LANINI: It’s not easy to keep going. You can’t just keep working with imported pine nuts. The extra transportation costs just get too high.
WILLIAMS: She’s hoping scientific cooperation, and those little wasps, will save a centuries-old Italian cottage industry from collapse. For The World, I’m Megan Williams in Marino Di Grosseto, Tuscany.
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