DUBAI // While limited water and agricultural land has driven the UAE to search for food security abroad, some experts believe the domestic date palm industry holds the key to a stable and prosperous agricultural future. "We are always talking about food security and buying farms in other countries, but this is what I call food security," said Dr Ghaleb al Hadrami, the dean of the College of Food and Agriculture at UAE University. "The Government has to invest more money in developing this industry through research to make more dates, better dates [and] keep the ecosystem without destroying it."
As is, the UAE may be selling short its potential for producing dates in a lucrative worldwide market for the fruit. Speciality dates, such as the medool or berhee varieties, that are being grown in regions comparatively new to the industry - California and Arizona in the US, Australia, Namibia and South Africa - are selling for as high as US$20,000 (Dh73,460) per wholesale tonne. "The 10 per cent produced elsewhere is making more money than the 90 per cent that is produced here," said Dr Abdelouahab Zaid, the chief technical adviser of the United Nations Development Programme and director of the Date Palm Research and Development Programme at UAE University. "The competition is catching up to us because here we have some quality issues."
Dr Hadrami said that work was being done, however, to make UAE's dates more competitive in world markets. "The Government is now setting conditions to the farmer based on quality so that the market will grow and compete internationally," he said. Nearly eight million tonnes of dates are produced globally per year, with the Middle East and North Africa responsible for the vast majority of that production, according to Dr Samir al Shaker, the retired former director general of Date Palm Global Network.
The date industry, however, poses obstacles for the UAE as it tries to increase its production. Date palms require a large amount of water to grow, and scientists around the world are in search of ways to create genetically modified palms that require as much as 60 to 70 per cent less water, which may ultimately cut costs down the line and aid production in the UAE. Meanwhile, the Date Palm Research and Development Programme and laboratories elsewhere are experimenting with tissue culture techniques for the propagation of high-quality, disease-free date palms.
Today, the UAE is the world's fifth-largest date producer behind Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt and Iran, with more than 40 million palm trees in the country. It is a major date exporter to countries such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan. In 2005 - the time of the most recent government figure - the domestic industry earned nearly Dh30 million, with production estimated to have grown since then at a rate of 15 per cent per year.
Despite a sizeable demand for the product, the retail price of dates has remained relatively stable, with only minor increases at a time when global food prices are generally climbing fast. A one-kilogram box of dates ranges from Dh9 to Dh98 depending on colour, quality and texture, while wholesale prices of Middle Eastern dates made and sold in the region average about $2,000 per tonne. "[Dates here are] still affordable at a time when food is becoming unaffordable for many people," said David Berrick, the retail general manager for Abela Supermarkets in Abu Dhabi. "Date sales are absolutely massive here, especially during Ramadan, and the industry should use this to its benefit."
Dates are associated with Ramadan and Muslims around world the often partake in the tradition of ending their daily fast during this holy month by eating a date. Shopkeepers say that sales of dates jump by as much as 70 to 80 per cent in the Middle East during this time. So great is the demand that last year, Starbucks debuted its Date Frappuccino drink, sold exclusively during Ramadan. "There is an increase in demand, especially nowadays due to derivatives of dates and dates products as ingredients in various food products, especially during the month of Ramadan," said Dr Shaker. "We should be using this to our advantage and really build up this industry for more sales and exports."