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Fungal invader bites Spanish ham

Phytophthora hits vital acorn supplies

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Spain's ham producers are eyeing with alarm the spread of a fungus which is threatening the food supply essential to the production of the country's famous leg of pig.

The culprit is Phytophthora1, which attacks the roots of the evergreen encina, (Holm Oak, Quercus ilex)2, whose acorns provide the diet for the indigenous black pigs and endow their flesh with the authentic, and expensive3, taste of jamón ibérico de bellota (Iberian acorn ham).

According to El País, Phytophthora's assault on the oak's root system prevents it taking up water. This, coupled to chronic drought and other factors, has affected 500 areas in Andalucia and Extremadura.

Gerardo Moreno, doctor of Biology and professor at the Universidad de Extremadura, explained: "Soil erosion, longer droughts and air pollution all contribute to the spread of the disease."

Phytophthora hits older oaks particularly hard, which is critical because farmers have in the past banked on the trees' longevity, and have accordingly not concerned themselves with raising new individuals. So, when a venerable encinar (oak wood) falls to the effects of Phytophthora, it's too late.

Alejandro Hernández Matamoros, whose family fattens 500 acorn-fed pigs annually in Jerez de los Caballeros, Extremadura, said: "There are areas where the drought is causing enormous damage. It's a problem which could get very serious: where there are no acorns, there are no Iberian pigs. We need to find a solution, because of lot of people's livelihoods depend on this, they need the oaks."

Professor Moreno admitted that the exact combination of factors which cause the Holm Oak deaths is not known, and that accordingly there's no immediate remedial plan. He concluded: "We've got plenty of groups investigating this, but all of them independently. The situation would be a lot better if we tackled the problem with a unified strategy." ®

Bootnotes

1Phytophthora are actually water moulds (oomycetes). The species in this case is not noted, but could well be Phytophthora cinnamomi. There's more here.

2 The Holm Oak is apparently taking its revenge on the UK, where it's considered a non-native pest. The trees don't much like frost, but rising British temperatures have allowed it to gain a solid foothold.

3 The very best legs of jamón ibérico de bellota go for silly money: 1,500 euros a pop is not uncommon.

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