Plants, Pathogens and the Politics of Care: Xylella fastidiosa and the Intra-Active Breakdown of Mallorca’s Almond Ecology

Remnants of a Xylella-infected almond tree, illustrated by a farmer and agronomist in Mallorca. Photo by author.

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2019 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Emily Reisman, University of California at Santa Cruz §

Remnants of a Xylella-infected almond tree, illustrated by a farmer and agronomist in Mallorca. Photo by author.

ABSTRACT: Almonds were once “the gold of Mallorca,” a source of modest wealth and a pillar of diversified farming systems for small holders on the largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands. Now researchers believe nearly every almond tree on the island will be dead within five years. The introduced bacteria Xylella fastidiosa, enabled by its spittle-bug vector, and emboldened by climate change, has flooded the xylem of these rain-fed trees, impeding the flow of fluid and nutrients until the tree can no longer survive. This paper enrolls feminist theorizations of care, material-semiotics, and agential realism to deepen the ethical implications of a plant epidemic. I argue that by attending to the care relations underlying pathogenicity we can shift from narratives of landscape purification toward a more-than-human politics of care.

I arrived on the island of Mallorca looking for the remnants of a once thriving almond-centered agroecological system. I knew that farming had been fading into the shadow of the island’s ever-expanding beachfront hotels for several decades, but I had no idea that in addition to economic pressures on agrarian livelihoods I would find a bacterial disease rapidly disintegrating the islands most characteristic trees before my very eyes. Xylella fastidiosa surprised me, revealing a tension between the urgency of epidemiological response and the slower, more easily disregarded, landscape transformations underway. In speaking with almond farmers, cooperative managers, scientists and public officials, I was struck by how limited a frame plant epidemiology presented for confronting the crisis of Xylella-infected almonds. While informational posters and pamphlets provided careful instructions to growers on how to detect, contain and mitigate the impact of the disease, a word well outside the agronomic vocabulary peppered nearly every conversation: cuidado (care).

Government officials suggested that almond trees were susceptible to Xylella because they had been poorly cared for. Farmers interpreted some actions by officials as careless and lamented that the broader public no longer cared about farming. Agronomists and farmers reminisced about how Franco’s fascist regime, despite its paternalism, had cared for farmers by funding an agricultural extension service. Almond growers, most of whom rented land, wondered what kind of tree care they could reasonably provide when the land they farm might be sold to make way for a vacation villa next year.

In this paper I adopt a feminist theorization of care as maintenance work. Building on Puig de la Bellacasa (2017), I use care not as a mark of benevolence but rather as a non-innocent set of processes concerning what is maintained and how. I draw on Barad’s (2007) theory of intra-action to make the case that while a disease may appear to arrive from elsewhere, it is also produced from within. Pathogenicity itself is relational. I develop the concept of a more-than-human politics of care, arguing this approach allows us to confront plant pathogens with a relational sensibility, broadening the response from suppressing a single organism to strengthening networks of socioecological maintenance and building an ethic of mutual responsibility for landscape care.

Environmental anthropology has long attended to the intimacy of interspecies linkages in agrarian lifeways (Evans-Pritchard 1940; Conklin 1957; Netting 1974) and recent work highlights the interacting agencies of organisms across scales, from microbes (Paxson 2008) to forests (Tsing 2015; Kohn 2013). Despite the significance of plant pathogens to empire-making (Crosby 2004) and their amplification by climate change, these lifeworld-altering diseases have received little attention (Seshia Galvin 2018). Understanding pathogenicity is not only timely, but theoretically rich terrain for understanding mutuality, biopolitics and care amidst precarity.

This work formed one part of a dissertation comparing the more-than-human entanglements of almonds in California and Spain. The project forms part of a broader research agenda investigating how, and to what effect, we come to know agricultural systems.

Works Cited

Barad, Karen Michelle. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Conklin, Harold. 1957. Hanunóo Agriculture: A Report on an Integral System of Shifting Cultivation in the Philippines. New York, NY: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Crosby, Alfred W. 2004. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. 2nd ed., new Ed. Studies in Environment and History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Netting, Robert McC. 1974. “Agrarian Ecology.” Annual Review of Anthropology 3 (1): 21–56.

Paxson, Heather. 2008. “Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States.” Cultural Anthropology 23 (1): 15–47.

Puig de la Bellacasa, María. 2017. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds. Posthumanities 41. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Seshia Galvin, Shaila. 2018. “Interspecies Relations and Agrarian Worlds.” Annual Review of Anthropology 47 (1): 233–49.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Emily Reisman is a doctoral candidate in Environmental Studies at the University of California Santa Cruz and will be joining the department of Environment & Sustainability at the University at Buffalo in fall of 2020.  Her research examines the politics of agricultural knowledge.

This post is part of our series, 2019 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.