Developing integrated date palm management solutions
Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.) is considered to be the oldest fruit tree in the Arabian Peninsula. It is a key component of agri-food systems in this region characterized by its arid climate. As a native tree, it is viewed as an integral part of the local cultural heritage and social and economic life.
However, date palm cultivation is challenging in the region due to water scarcity, soil and water salinity, and low soil fertility, among other factors. In the UAE, for example, a hyper-arid climate means reference evapotranspiration exceeds 2,000 mm whereas the average annual precipitation is just 50 mm.
In addition to these abiotic stresses, date palm production is constrained by pests and diseases, and specifically red palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus). According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the annual losses in global date palm production are estimated at 30 percent because of pests and diseases.
What is more, red palm weevil in particular is regarded as the biggest threat to date palm production in the Middle East and North Africa and other regions. It is responsible for destroying date palm trees worth over half a billion US dollars every year in the Mediterranean countries and affects nearly 50 million farmers worldwide.
As around 90 percent of the world’s date palm trees are grown in the Middle East and North Africa where many farmers heavily depend on date palm production for their livelihoods, it is important to develop effective solutions for dealing with biotic and abiotic stresses. On the one hand, it is necessary to identify date palm varieties that are more tolerant of biotic and abiotic stresses. On the other hand, integrated approaches are required to save water and other inputs, fight pests and diseases and ensure higher yields in harsh environmental conditions.
This rationale also guides date palm research at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). Since 2002 the center has conducted different experiments in the UAE to determine the long-term effect of saline water irrigation on date palm growth, productivity, fruit quality, and the impact of salinity on the soil. The experiments are conducted on 18 date palm varieties from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including Nabtat Sultan and Am-Al-Hamam, which are found to be very sensitive to salinity.
Scientists have also carried out studies to determine actual water requirements of date palm trees in the UAE, and as a result, the center has water productivity data that helps to reduce irrigation in local conditions by up to 50 percent. In addition, the center has tested various water-saving technologies, including hydrogels and sub-surface irrigation systems. Results show that these technologies help to achieve water savings of 25-82 percent without any negative effect on yields.
As part of this research program, ICBA also evaluates the effectiveness of different techniques for controlling red palm weevil, including pheromone traps, traditional traps, chemical treatment, eco-friendly organic treatment, and electronic devices. More recently, ICBA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have begun collaboration with scientists in Brazil, Colombia, and Germany to assess the feasibility of introducing a South American biological control agent to control red palm weevil in the Arabian Peninsula.
This research work also involves testing and implementing a system of the internet of things and drone-based data collection integrated into a GIS-based artificial intelligence analysis platform for monitoring the date palm plantation (Palm Smart Management Solution).
As date palm production in the region faces a host of challenges, it is important to develop integrated date palm management solutions. And ICBA’s research program on date palm is aimed to meet the need for such solutions and support efforts by other organizations to improve the livelihoods of date palm producers in the region and beyond.