TRENDS AND OUTLOOK
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During the last 30 years or so several changes in date harvesting, packing, processing and marketing have taken place. Perhaps one of the most striking trends in a number of date producing countries of the Old World has been that, under the influence of newly acquired oil wealth, date cultivation, packing and processing could be modernized, in spite of a tendency of decreasing importance of the date as a staple food resulting from the same welfare increase. The highly traditional nature and close relationship of the date grower and his crop has undoubtedly also played a role in preventing a decline in date production. New outlets for at least part of the crop were found through better handling and processing methods to cater for more sophisticated emerging markets. Modern technologies, mostly imported, sometimes adapted, made it possible to achieve more uniformity and higher quality standards. An indicative figure for this development is the number of new date packing and processing plants that came into existence amounting to some 40 and distributed as follows:
Saudia Arabia 4
Bahrain 1 Morocco 2 S. Yemen 1
Egypt 2 Oman 2 Sudan 1
Iran 5 Pakistan 3 Tunisia 2
Iraq 9 Qatar 1 (529)
Not all of these plants have fared well, however, and some still lean heavily on Government support, but a number have been successful and have reached a true commercially viable status. Considering the fact that the first step in industrialization is the most difficult, when all the problems have to be faced together and simultaneously, it can be concluded that progress has been made and will continue to be made. Some of the salient technical aspects of this progress are the following:
- increased use of plastic boxes and crates for improved field handling and storage of dates (529, 294)
- use of vibrating tables and conveyors during grading for better inspection and bulk packing of dates by vibration instead of pressing (294)
- increased use of vacuum fumigation and the use of phosphine, the latter also during transit (294, 341, 394)
- continued consideration for the introduction of insect control by irradiation
- regulation of moisture content (hydration, dehydration) in the packing plants for better control on product quality and uniformity (341, 394)
- an emerging trend of marketing khalaal and rutab under refrigerated conditions (529, 394)
- increased automation in date packing plant operations (394)
- introduction of automatic filling of bags and thermo-form packs and packing under vacuum and nitrogen gas (394)
- increased use of mechanized pitting and stuffing of dates (394)
- improved bulk date shipments, facilitated by worldwide spread of containerization
- intensified production of date products and industrial use of dates.
In the New World (mainly California) the most characteristic phenomenon has been the gradual change-over of private, individual ownership of the date plantations into large holdings by companies integrated with large-scale packing and processing facilities. There are, however, some notable exceptions to this process and several individual farmers grow, pack and sell their fruit on the spot in roadside stores. The commercial success of these enterprises is no doubt helped by the fact that date cultivation in the U.S. is now practically restricted to one major area (Coachella Valley), which has become, also for its favourable climato-logical conditions, a tourist attraction. There is no need for the smaller entrepeneur for an elaborate and expensive marketing and distribution system, the clients come to him.
Another major change that has taken place in U.S. date cultivation under the impact of increasing labour costs and height of the palms has been the mechanization of cultural practices and in particular the timing and method of harvesting. Today, in many instances, the dates are left longer on the palm and are harvested only all in one go. Major consequences of the prolonged stay on the palm are the need for more protection against early rain, more chance of infestation on the palm necessitating dusting and reconstituting the dates to the required moisture level after harvesting to prepare them for the market. An advantage of the lower moisture content at harvesting, however, is that the dates are much easier handled and store better.
As for external marketing, there have been marked changes especially over the last ten years. Historically world trade in dates was divided in several sectors each with its own charcteristics, briefly described as follows:
- dates pressed in baskets intended as a low cost popular food. This market was mainly confined to the Gulf area and to other Arab countries and the Far East. Origin was mainly Iraq, which has by far the highest per capita date production in the world and is an exporter by necessity. With a well-organized, centralized marketing organization, the cif cost of Iraqi dates was practically always lower than locally produced dates in the receiving countries, which has not made it any easier for local date industries to emerge. The size of this market is difficult to estimate but an impression may be obtained from the import figures for dates in the Arab countries and the Far East (Appendix I)
- a variant of the trade of pressed dates and which have not been constant in time or volume, are shipments of pressed dates, perhaps partly used for industrial purposes, to countries like China and the former USSR,
- trade in boiled dates (khalaal matbuukh) mainly directed to India, not only from Iraq but also from other Gulf countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia,
- exports of selected, bulk packed dates from Iraq and Iran to the U.S. mainly for use in date products. This trade has existed for many years and the imports into the U.S. have been as high as 15,000 tons annually. The general price levels for this trade are much higher than for pressed dates in baskets,
- on a parallel line, perhaps slightly less select, dates in bulk are shipped to Europe for use in date products or repacking. Also trade in retail packs to Europe (not to the U.S.) exists,
- trade of North African dates (Algeria, Tunisia), mainly Deglet Noor, to Europe for repacking and sales in retail packs. This trade originated exclusively as a bulk trade for repacking in Europe (mainly France). Since independence of the two producer countries of Deglet Noor a local packing industry has also emerged with direct sales to the European retail market.
Whilst in the sixties and seventies there were no drastic changes in this trade pattern, the occurrence of the Iraq/Iran war in the eighties has had a profound effect. In the first instance it created sharp rises in date prices, which made industrial users look for substitute products, which in turn created a lower demand for dates. It also gave other date producing countries a chance to get into the market and a country like Pakistan managed, through a major effort of private initiative to get a chunk of this trade (294). Meanwhile Saudi Arabia also had built up a modern date industry and had increased its export potential, but so far has not been able to fill the gap, presumably because of the higher price levels. As far as the European market is concerned the emphasis for retail table dates has become even more accentuated on the North African Deglet Noor, reinforced by imports from the United States. Consumption of dates in Europe has only slightly increased over the last decennia and it does not normally exceed 100 g per capita per year. This, compared with 11 to 12 kg in Iran, for instance (363). The European market for whole dates increasingly demands first quality fruits of preferred varieties and more than anything else, a guarantee of wholesomeness. The guiding standards are laid down in the "Revised recommendations concerning the marketing and commercial quality control of whole dates moving in trade between and to European Countries" (576)
There has been a trend away from using additives like preservatives or coating materials except those that can be considered natural products like ascorbic acid and glucose syrup (394). The situation is, however, not always perfect as reported in a consumer protection magazine (300) which after inspection of a number of samples of packed dates found a variety of defects ranging from deformation to live infestation and insufficient labelling. If whole dates are to acquire a larger portion of the dried fruit market in Europe these occurrences of quality defects should at all cost be avoided. In addition, distributors and retailers should put the use and nutritional and organoleptical qualities of dates more on the spot by advertising and television campaigns, which so far has hardly been done. At present (1992) the supply situation is more uncertain than ever taking into consideration the after effects of the Gulf War and no great positive developments in date consumption and trade can be expected until the political situation in the major supplier countries has been cleared up.
With respect to date products the past thirty to forty years have shown marked developments, which have broadened the outlets for dates besides the use as a table fruit. Perhaps a distinction should be made between the modified forms of the sound date flesh to cater for the emerging needs of the consumer, and the use of dates as an industrial raw material resulting in products less closely related to the date proper. In the first category the major efforts were made in the U.S. but have also now found applications in date producing countries of the Old World. On the contrary, the industrial use of dates has seen a more extensive development in the traditional date producing countries because of the quantities and quality of dates available. Whilst in date products the intrinsic flavour and taste are preserved, in industrial date products the relation becomes much less pronounced and raw materials of different origin become a competitive factor. Industrial use of dates has provided an outlet for usually the lower quality fruits and however beneficial this has been, the ultimate goal of date production is to produce fruits of a high quality to be sold as a fruit which as an economical proposition has a different dimension. Improving quality of the crop depends, however, not only on the skill and dedication of the date producer but to a large extent on the availability of the adequate genetic stock adapted to the different climatological conditions. It is further to be noted that a substantial amount of date research and develop-ment work, originally mainly concentrated in Iraq and the U.S., has moved to other date producing countries in the Old World.
International contacts and cooperation in date cultivation, packing, processing and marketing has increased enormously. Before World War II these contacts were practically non-existent except through trade channels, but scientifically very little was done. One exception must be made for the group of date planters and researchers in the U.S. which under the pressure of increasing problems of introducing a foreign crop in new land, put their imagination and effort together and created the Date Grower's Institute under the auspices of local agricultural authorities and in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ever since, an annual report containing many valuable technical research results and articles of general interest for the date industry have been issued, which have also been of great assistance to date workers outside the U.S. For a long time it was the only publication solely devoted to dates. The first issue was in 1924 and continued up until 1979, when the 54th and last issue was published. The reasons for this unfortunate demise were the coming of age of the Californian date industry, the change from small, private plantations to large holdings and the closure of the U.S. Date and Citrus Station, Indio, with which the Institute was closely related.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations started its technical assistance programme on dates in the early fifties. Over the years many of the date producing countries have received specialist advice and equipment for starting or improving their date industry. Three International Date Conferences, under FAO sponsorship were held in Tripoli (Libya, 1959), and Baghdad (Iraq, 1965 and 1975). An FAO/UNDP funded Regional Project on Date and Date Palm Improvement started operating in 1978 with a membership of 17 countries, and headquartered in Baghdad at Iraq's National Date Centre. Amongst its activities, which included production, processing and marketing aspects of dates, were training courses, consultancies and outposted field officers in specific fields, issuance of a half-yearly Date Palm Journal and a Date Bibliography. The project came to an end in 1985 and there was, unfortunately, no immediate follow-up by national governments to continue this work at a Regional level. However, IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) has taken the initiative for establishing a Network on Dates, which could, when approved, continue the international linkage between date producing countries of the Old World. Apart from the many technical and country reports on dates, FAO published manuals on Handling, Processing and Packing of Dates (130) and on Date Production and Protection (142). UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization) was involved in several date projects whilst Government bilateral aid programmes and the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development have on occasion also given assistance on specific matters in various countries.
The latest major manifestations on all aspects of the date palm were organized in two Symposia by the King Faisal University, Al-Hassa, Saudi Arabia. The results and full text of the papers of the two Symposia, held in 1982 and 1986 respectively, are published in the Proceedings, which are a most valid contribution to the reference literature of specialized knowledge on the date.
The net balance of the different developments in the date industry over the last thirty to forty years is positive in spite of several countercurrents such as change in food habits away from dates, increasing labour scarcity and cost in the date gardens, war situations, and problems of water supply (e.g. increasing salinity of the Shatt-al-Arab). Nevertheless world date production has increased, cultivation methods and handling the crop have improved, the quality and yield/palm generally speaking are rising and there has developed a substantial date product diversification. In its persistance in surviving the trends against its continuation, the date palm is greatly helped by the traditional, historical ties with the date producer, the secondary benefits derived from it and the limited choice of alternative crops especially under the more extreme environmental situations. This positive main development stream is on one side accentuated by great success stories such as the Californian date industry, and localized ventures in the Old World but on the negative side also cases of abandonment of palms under the pressure of, mainly, economic changes, are witnessed.
The future of date production although with to be expected shifts in cultural practices and marketing outlets can be looked upon with optimism, but it will be essential to maintain the momentum of improvement programmes.
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