FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf reiterated his call for greater investment in agriculture, using the example of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) investments in date palm development, a program that has made it the seventh date producer in the world, with 6 percent of global date production.

The director-general's comments came at the opening of the third edition of  the Khalifa International Date Palm Award, which today awarded prizes to eight winners for excellence in  research, techniques, production, cultivation and development. The award is designed to raise awareness of the role of dates in food security.

Date palm trees a UAE cultural heritage

"This initiative truly reflects the importance of the date palm in the cultural heritage of the United Arab Emirates and in the food economy of the region", Diouf said, explaining that the sector constitutes a priority for economic diversification in the government's development plan.

"However, there is a need to increase the supply of quality plant material for local and regional needs and to go beyond the present framework of date production by government plantations and a limited number of private farmers," he added.

Diouf paid tribute to Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, saying that the UAE president's commitment to the development of agriculture and, specifically, to the date palm had prompted increased investment in agriculture and a greater use of modern technology.

"It was thus possible to obtain an increase in the number of date palms, a multiplication of varieties, and a marked improvement in the marketing and processing of dates", Diouf said.

But investment in agriculture still lagging

But the director-general reminded his audience that, as in 2008, international agricultural markets again face higher food commodity prices that could undermine food security in a world where population, and thus the demand for food, are sharply on the rise.

The expected growth in population - from 6.9 billion people today to 9.1 billion in 2050 - will require a 70 percent increase in global food production and a 100 percent increase the developing countries, he said adding that investment was not keeping pace.

"The share of agriculture in official development assistance fell from 19 percent in 1980 to 3 percent in 2006. Currently, it stands at 5 percent. Developing countries only allocate 5 percent of their national budgets to the sector, instead of 10 percent, despite its contribution to gross domestic product, exports and the balance of payments", Diouf said.

Meanwhile, more than 100 million tonnes of cereals are diverted from food to biofuels on account of subsidies valued at $13 billion and tariff protection of the developed countries.

"If we add the impact of droughts, floods, hurricanes and other events exacerbated by climate change and the speculation on agricultural commodity futures markets, it becomes clear that the current situation is the chronicle of a disaster foretold," he added.

The DG commended the UAE for attaching great importance to the agricultural sector despite the country's land and water constraints and thereby pursuing the policy of the UAE's "visionary" leader, the late Sheikh Zayed, who declared "Give me agriculture and I will give you civilization".