Our food systems today rely too heavily on a very few number of crops. Nutritious local crop species and varieties have the potential to diversify our diets and food systems.
Our food systems aren’t working as they should be. Over 820 million people are still going hungry on our planet today. At the same time, there is a worldwide obesity epidemic. Access, in terms of availability and cost, to healthy food is a major factor in both scenarios. The limited number of foods we produce, the ways in which we grow and transport it, the ways in which we distribute it, all have huge room for improvement. Changes in these systems can mean saving natural resources, cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions and having more food reach consumers, especially vulnerable groups.
There are many solutions available to us. Traditional, time-proven ways of harvesting and producing food are being revisited. Cultures and respect for the value of food are being revitalized. Fruits and vegetables that have been overlooked on a global level are gaining new attention. There is a wide range of foods that fit this description, but one in particular is dates.
Here are 5 reasons dates need to be a greater part of our future of food:
1. Dates are nutritious
Dates are rich in iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and they are a good source of fibre. They are also rich in calories, making them a great energy source. Sweet in taste, dates are also a good alternative to refined sugars. Turning to nutritious, natural options, like fruits, rather than ultra-processed foods is one factor that can help reverse the trend of obesity. More than 2 billion people around the world are overweight. Our food systems of today are making it easier for people to choose cheaper, quicker options that are usually higher in fat, salts, sugars and calories. Increasing availability of fresh fruits and vegetables can help people make healthier choices. Options like dried dates that can keep for many months are a good example of a quick nutritious alternative. Their long shelf-life also helps minimize food losses.
2. Dates have untapped potential
Our food systems today rely too heavily on a very few number of crops. Some 6 000 plant species have been cultivated for food throughout human history. Today, only 8 of them supply more than 50 percent of our daily calories. With climate change making our food production more vulnerable, we cannot rely on so few crops to feed a growing population. There are a wealth of traditional crops that are very nutritious, adapted to local conditions and resilient to climate variabilities. These are increasingly important to diversify our food systems and provide the wide variety of nutrients that we need for a healthy life. While dates are fairly well-known in many parts of the world, only certain kinds of dates are traded internationally.
The date palm has been cultivated for more than 5 000 years. Because of the nutrients and calories that dates provided, these fruits meant food security for populations living in the desert. Left: ©West Siwa Development Project.
3. Dates are part of a long heritage and culture
The date palm has been cultivated in the Middle East and North Africa for more than 5 000 years. Because of the nutrients and calories that dates provided, these fruits meant food and nutrition security for populations living in the desert and other drylands.
Food and agriculture around the world form an important part of cultures and identities. To celebrate and preserve this heritage, FAO designed the Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) programme to award sites around the world that have maintained traditions of growing and harvesting foods that are unique and well-adapted to local landscapes and climate. As one good GIAHS example, the Siwa Oasis in Egypt precisely demonstrates farmers’ ingenuity to adapt agriculture to difficult conditions. Here, cultivated date palms are inter-cropped with fruits, vegetables, fodder crops and occasionally cereals in a three-storey canopy structure with date palms occupying the highest level. This multi-layered system creates a microclimate that allows other crops to grow under palm trees, preserving precious water.
4. Date Palms are tolerant to difficult environmental conditions
In 2018, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Algeria were the top four producers of dates worldwide, and they are all countries that struggle with water scarcity. The date palm can grow in hot, arid climates and have a tolerance for saline water. These qualities allow it to grow and offer a food source even in difficult environmental conditions, such as deserts.
In 2018, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Algeria were the top four producers of dates worldwide..
5. Dates are important for livelihoods
Date production is an important sector not only for the food and nutrition security of people in rural areas but also for their livelihoods. In the last 30 years, however, these livelihoods are being threatened by the Red Palm Weevil, the most destructive pest of palm trees worldwide. The Red Palm Weevil originated in South East Asia and has spread rapidly to other regions. Feeding on trees from the inside, Red Palm Weevil infestations are particularly difficult to detect during the early stages. FAO is developing a mobile app, SusaHamra, to assist farmers worldwide in collecting data when inspecting and treating palms for this pest. FAO is also combining remote sensing with artificial intelligence to map palm trees and monitor the spread of these pests to help safeguard livelihoods throughout the Near East and North Africa region.
As another important initiative, FAO and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) are helping to raise awareness about the importance of protecting plant resources from pests and diseases and promoting safe international trade through the observance of the International Year of Plant Health in 2020. This observance is crucial to not only raise awareness on food and nutrition security but also on biodiversity conservation and healthy ecosystems restoration, especially in very dry areas.
In June 2019, FAO hosted an event organized by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to promote the benefits of date production for economic, environmental and social development. Talks are ongoing to review how traditional and local crops can make an impact in achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2.
It is time to reconsider our food systems, focus on globally underutilized crops, revive indigenous practices and concentrate on nutrition instead of food. Our planet and our bodies need it. With everyone’s participation, we can achieve #ZeroHunger and the SDGs.