ICBA marks over 20 years of date palm research
Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.) is considered to be the oldest fruit tree in the Arabian Peninsula. It is a key component of agrifood 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. 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 over half a billion dollars’ worth of date palm trees 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 under harsh environmental conditions.
This rationale has guided ICBA’s research program on date palm for more than two decades. Since 2001 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, which are irrigated with water at four salinity levels: 0.4 dS/m; 5 dS/m; 10 dS/m; and 15 dS/m. Results to date show that it is possible to grow salt-tolerant varieties of date palm using saline water along with best practices in salinity management. It has been found that Lulu, Barhi, Khisab, Shagri and Jabri are the most salt-tolerant varieties in terms of yield, but their yields drop by 50 percent at 12 dS/m (8400 ppm). However, in terms of fruit quality, Ajwa Al Madinah, Naghal, Barhi, Shagri, Abu Maan, Jabri, Sukkari and Rothan perform better under moderately saline conditions. Their mineral and sugar content also improves when these varieties are irrigated with moderately saline water (5-10 dS/m) compared to freshwater irrigation.
Scientists have also carried out studies to determine actual water requirements of date palm trees in the UAE. As a result, the center has water productivity data that helps to reduce irrigation in local conditions by up to 50 percent. Moreover, 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. Findings indicate that it is possible to use eco-friendly organic treatment and electronic devices to control red palm weevil. They also show that eco-friendly organic treatment and electronic devices are as effective as chemical treatment in controlling the pest.
This research work also involves testing and implementing a system of the internet of things (IoT) and drone-based data collection integrated into a GIS-based AI analysis platform for monitoring the date palm plantation (Palm Smart Management Solution) at ICBA.
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 at meeting the need for such solutions and supporting efforts by other organizations to improve the livelihoods of date palm producers in the region and beyond.