Date surplus is focal point of Saudi agricultural research

On Saudi Arabia Airlines, passengers are served date-filled cookies and candied dates. Creative Saudi restaurants feature date drinks. Would Saudis try pickled dates, date jam, date syrup, or date ice cream, agronomists here wonder?

Dates are probably the only commodity that the kingdom has in surplus - after crude oil, of course. A delicacy in most parts of the world, there are so many dates in Saudi Arabia that the vast majority rot on trees.

Most date varieties are of very poor quality and their harvesting is an expensive matter. Specialists at the Riyadh Regional Agriculture and Water Research Center have cooked and pickled five varieties of dates, and are trying to concoct as many creative uses for them as George Washington Carver found for the peanut.

The government already has begun to use dates in the Middle East- Africa region in much the same way the US government uses wheat - as a foreign-aid commodity. Automation may help salvage some of the neglected dates. At Hofuf, in the heart of the traditional Saudi date-growing region, a new factory is able to process and pack 5,000 tons of dates an hour.

Surplus dates are just one of the problems being studied by the Riyadh agriculture center. Agronomist Salah Abu-Shakra outlines studies being conducted into desert livestock, insects, and plants that grow in especially difficult conditions.

The soils in Saudi Arabia are sandy and highly saline, as is the scarce groundwater. The climate has high daytime temperatures most of the year, extreme dryness, and damaging frosts in winter. These conditions are home to intriguing agricultural specimens. Dr. Abu Shadkr mentions a study being conducted on a variety of wild watermelon that survives years without water. The melon is also extremely bitter (so bitter, it is said, that a camel will not touch it). By crossbreeding it, scientists hope to develop a hardy sweet melon.

Desert-roaming animals such as sheep, camels, and goats, Dr. Abu-Shakr says, may be ''most adapted to the harshest environment and poorest nutrition conditions ever. They offer unique opportunities for study.''

Similarly, the ecology of Saudi oases is of great interest. Dr. A.S. Talhouk, also working at the research center, observes that in Saudi oases ''for thousands of years there has been a beautiful balance. Every single pest has natural enemies keeping it under control. We have found parasites, and parasites on them, and even a third layer of parasites on those.''

Even nomadic human life offers some surprises to these scientists. Dr. Abu Shakr is studying madirm, a kind of dry Bedouin cheese made from sheep, goat, or camel milk that is naturally fermented and dried in the sun.

''It's a preserved dairy product for the desert. But we don't know if it is a bacteria that preserves it, or how the bacteria is introduced.'' Like the date, however, scientists here are beginning to refine and test madirm. In urban centers, Dr. Abu Shakr says, ''We know there is a good market for this.''

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