Iconic palms multiply in modern lab

Researchers in Al Ain are perfecting the mass production of the UAE's prized plant: the date palm.

MEZAIRA'A, LIWA REGION, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - July 10, 2008: Rakan Maktum Ahmed Al Qubaisi, President of the High Committee of the Liwa Festival shows some different varieties of dates in his Majilis. The Liwa Festival site is currently being constructed and will open to the public as of Thursday, July 17, 2008. ( Ryan Carter / The National ) *** Local Caption ***  RC019-LiwaFestival.JPGRC019-LiwaFestival.JPG
Powered by automated translation

Al AIN // On the outskirts of Al Ain's Al-Fou'ah region is one of the most advanced agricultural research centres of its kind, dedicated to perfecting the breeding of the country's prized plant, the date palm. While tried and trusted methods such as seed and off-shoot propagation have always served farmers and the plant stock well, in the modern world breeding palms through such time-consuming techniques has proved inefficient and incompatible with the Government's policy of increasing crop production.

In 2000, the Date Palm Research and Development Unit, owned and financed by the UAE University, established a collaborative programme with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), which provided the technical know-how the laboratory lacked when it came to modern propagation methods. Since then, the 20-hectare facility, and its plant tissue culture laboratory, has successfully developed expertise in improving date-palm production.

It is a mark of the unit's success that, according to Dr Abdelouahab Zaid, the chief technical adviser of the United Nations Development Programme and the director of the Date Palm Research and Development Unit, the UAE-FAO contract, which had been expected to end in June of this year, has been extended for another four years. The date, said Dr Zaid, "is the most adaptable crop to the region". Today, 15 years after it first opened its doors, the laboratory has managed to attract local talent and is staffed by 10 Emiratis, led by Dr Helal Humaid al Kaabi, with two more expected to join the team after completing their master's degrees from the department of agricultural sciences at UAE University.

Dr Kaabi, the National Project director, said he hoped the laboratory's work would help satisfy increasing demand for the plant that previous generations of Emiratis relied on for survival. "The date palm is the first fruit tree in the UAE and it is the only tree that can adapt to the UAE's harsh climate conditions," he said. "It is the tree that our ancestors lived off for food and shelter." The laboratory has a production capacity of 120,000 date palms a year and since its inception in 1993, over half a million cultured date palms have been produced through a "micro-propagation" technique called organogenesis.

"We can be considered the largest laboratory in the world for date palms," said Dr Zaid, whose facility has an operational budget of Dh3 million (US$817,000) a year and aims for an annual production of one million date palms. The four-step tissue-culture technique mass-produces genetically superior and uniform date palms that grow almost 40 per cent faster than plants produced by traditional techniques. Once transplanted into the field they have almost a 100 per cent survival rate. This ability to mass-propagate dates has made the UAE the largest producing country of date palms in the region. Six per cent of the world's total date output is produced here and there are already at least 40 million date palms in the UAE.

However, the Government feels that more should be done. In April it announced the Sheikh Khalifa International Date Palm Award, aimed at "enhancing the conduct and proliferation of date palm research... and rewarding those individuals and institutions that have contributed substantially to it". On offer are five cash prizes totalling Dh1 million. The closing date for applications is Sept 30 and the winners will be announced in the first week of February next year.

"The date palm is a blessed tree, and life could not have been possible in the region without it," said Dr Zaid, who heads up the committee that supervises the Sheikh Khalifa Date Palm Award. "The UAE nationals have developed a love for this tree because it was their only source of food and survival." @Email:talramahi@thenational.ae