Along with the camel and the world’s highest tower, the humble date is one of the most enduring icons of the UAE, and soon it will be recognised for its importance to international agriculture.
This will happen when the Food and Agriculture Organisation names the way it is cultivated in the country as a globally important agricultural heritage system, said Jose Graziano da Silva, director general of the UN organisation.
“The efforts to preserve and update knowledge on date palms has created a unique system that combines production and sustainability, safeguards biodiversity and helps to improve the livelihoods of those who till the land,” said da Silva at the fifth International Date Palm Conference, which took place this month in Abu Dhabi.
The FAO initiative recognises systems that reflect generations of farmers’ agricultural practices to preserve what they provide to local communities and to foster sustainable agriculture and rural development.
Other countries with recognised systems include China, Kenya, the Philippines and India.
Date palms are thriving in the UAE in a region where they have been suffering losses. In Morocco, for example, three million date palms have been devastated by fungal bayoud disease, while years of war in Iraq have wiped out as many as 40m of the trees, according to biologist Franz Hoffmann, the conference chairman.
Mohammed Abdul Muhsen, a member of the conference’s scientific committee, said the date palm’s range of uses for nutrition and raw materials make it important for food security, especially in the Middle East.
“The date palm used to be everything for the Bedouin and the nationals in ages before, like the camel,” Abdul Muhsen said.
Last year, scientists from Saudi Arabia and China sequenced the genome of one of the Arabian Gulf’s most popular varieties of date palm, the khalas.
The team, from the King Abdul-Aziz City for Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and the Beijing Institute of Genomics, sequenced more than 90% of the genome, covering about 96% of its genes.
With a lifespan of more than 100 productive years, the date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, is also one of the world’s oldest cultivated trees. The earliest records of date palm cultivation go back to 3,700 BC.