Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 June 2019

Date palm cloning ensures traditional UAE industry has a sweet future

With more than 40 million date palms, the UAE is a key centre for the production of the fruit but it is also heavily involved in cloning date palms by tissue culture.

Franck Marionnet's family set up Al Wathba Marionnet with an Emirati partner in the UAE in 1998. Pawan Singh / The National
Franck Marionnet's family set up Al Wathba Marionnet with an Emirati partner in the UAE in 1998. Pawan Singh / The National

The date palm has been a key source of food in the Arabian Gulf for well over 5,000 years and its role in providing sustenance here shows no sign of fading.

Each year tens of thousands of people attend the Liwa Dates Festival, which runs until July 29, a vivid demonstration that dates remain as important a commodity as ever.

With more than 40 million date palms, the UAE is a key centre for the production of the fruit but it is also heavily involved in cloning date palms by tissue culture.

While there are other ways of propagating date palms, only sophisticated laboratory techniques can produce the tens of thousands of genetically identical plants needed by the date-growing industry each year.

Among the few companies able to propagate date palms on an industrial scale is Al Wathba Marionnet, an Emirati-French company with headquarters in Abu Dhabi and with tissue-culture laboratories and greenhouses at Al Khazna, between the capital and Al Ain.

“Tissue culture will get rid of any disease and give you the capability to produce in high quantities; there’s no other choice,” said Franck Marionnet, the company’s general manager.

Ramon Peñas / The National

Other companies involved in tissue culturing date palms are Green Coast Nurseries in Fujairah, which collaborates with a UK company, Date Palm Developments, which has tissue-culture laboratories in south-west England.

In addition, UAE University has a date palm tissue culture laboratory that propagates date palms and sells them commercially.

The UAE is a hub for this business because, from the late 1990s, authorities offered tenders for companies to supply thousands of tissue-cultured date palms, said Buthaina Khazal, managing partner of Green Coast Nurseries. These plants were subsequently passed on to farmers.

Mrs Khazal said support from Sheikh Zayed, the UAE’s Founding Father, was key to the technology’s adoption. However, even now, the techniques remain problematic.

“Date palms were one of the last things [scientists] worked on with tissue culture, and the most difficult,” said Mrs Khazal.

Mr Marionnet described the use of tissue culture with date palms as “very, very specific” and something that “so few laboratories” are able to carry out successfully.

“So many started and closed; they cannot succeed,” he said. “If you’re producing strawberries, it’s very easy. Technically [with date palms] it’s very, very difficult. Every day we have failures and successes.

“We keep improving all the time but we haven’t produced the ideal production capability and ideal ease of production.”

Like other flowering plants, date palms can reproduce by seed. However, because these seeds are created by mixing the genetic material of a male and female plant, they vary from one to another, so the resulting plants may not be consistent in their yield of dates or other characteristics.

Also, it is just female date palms that produce dates, so farmers do not want to waste time and resources growing plants only to find they are male.

As an alternative, female plants can be cloned, generating offspring genetically identical to the parent. One method involves taking offshoots, which are small versions of the plant that grow out from the base of the trunk, and growing them into trees.

“When you have a big tree, you have a small one growing from its foot. This one you can take; it will be exactly the same,” said Mr Marionnet.

“[However], within the lifespan of one adult tree, it will produce 10 to 15 daughters; it’s not enough to supply the demand.”

Also, if the mother plant has a disease, a daughter plant grown from an offshoot will have the same condition. Mr Marionnet said only about 60 per cent of offshoots grow successfully.

So instead, tissue culture, which involves taking tiny pieces of plant derived from offshoots and growing them under laboratory conditions, is used.

The Marionnet family, which has an agricultural company in France with more than a century of history, set Al Wathba Marionnet up with an Emirati partner in the UAE in 1998 because the country is a key market for date palms. They employ 35 people, most in the laboratories and greenhouses, and produces 200,000 to 250,000 date palms each year, many exported to India, Pakistan, Central America, Africa and many Middle Eastern countries.

Green Coast Nurseries, which also exports all over the world, has an 86-hectare nursery where annually it grows more than 100,000 palms, including types of palm other than the date palm, such as the Listona fan palm. The company also has a large date farm.

Mrs Khazal said early varieties of date palm produce fruits from June onwards and the harvesting season runs until October. “Most varieties come mid-season - June, July, August. Right now … [at] our farm you will see an army of people. They work early morning and in the afternoon,” she said.

The date palm industry has methods to ripen dates in storage, allowing them to be harvested early.

Other countries to have date palm tissue culture facilities include Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Spain.

How date palms are cloned by tissue culture

Producing date palms by tissue culture typically involves cutting out small sections of the growing part of offshoots and planting them in a nutrient medium before keeping them in the dark. New shoots are generated and are cut out and planted separately.

After about six months of growth, the small plants are put in pots and may be kept in a high humidity section of a greenhouse before further growth in a regular area of a greenhouse. Al Wathba Marionnet keeps plants for between eight months and a year in a greenhouse, by which time they are large enough to be sent by air to customers. They are packed in boxes that hold 25 plants and that fit in air-freight pallets.

Customers can expect plants to start producing dates after three to five years.

The prices charged vary from one date palm variety to another. Al Wathba Marionnet produces about 16 varieties, while the date palm tissue culture laboratory at UAE University publishes a list of 18 varieties that it sells, the most expensive of which, Barhee and Majhool, cost Dh150 per plant. One variety, Khlass, sells for Dh140 each, while the remaining 15 varieties, among them Sultana, Lulu, Debbas and Khadri, are Dh130 per plant.

The laboratory pledges that plants will be true-to-type to the variety, be free of pests or diseases, have a strong root system and be able to grow more rapidly than normal offshoots. If looked after properly, survival rates are said to be nearly 100 per cent.

Updated: July 23, 2017 06:12 PM