Dates, fruit typical of the Middle East, may help transform the reality of the northeastern semiarid. This is the proposal of Egyptian agronomist Magdi Ahmed Ibrahim Aloufa, who developed, in the biotechnology laboratory of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), date saplings adapted to northeastern Brazil.
The researcher is now after partners interested in growing the plants and trading dates, a greatly appreciated product in the country. To him, however, as important as the economic potential of the fruit, is its capacity for adaptation to degraded areas and dry regions.
A coordinator at the laboratory and vegetable physiology professor at UFRN, Magdi Ahmed believes that the northeast has chances of becoming an exporter of dates, but has not yet started investing in this market sector.
"The plant has a very good economic value. And the only Latin American country that has acclimatized dates is Mexico, from where Brazil imports the largest share of the dates it currently consumes," explained the Egyptian, who has been based in Rio Grande do Norte since 1983.
According to him, in Petrolina, in the interior of Pernambuco, there are some date producers, but they plant from seeds, a practice that does not guarantee the quality of the fruit.
"In laboratory, we developed saplings through biotechnology, guaranteeing the size, flavor and early maturing of the dates," he explained. This way, the dates take only four years to produce fruit, whereas from seed, and without quality control, dates could take up to 15 years to start producing.
Magdi Ahmed's main objective, however, is to occupy degraded regions and semiarid soil with date palms. "It is a plant from the Middle East, produced in all of the Arab countries, and that grows in the desert. Therefore, apart from the economic question, which is the one that currently interests the most, there is also the environmental question, which is the word of the hour," he evaluates.
Date palms fertilize the soil, reducing the temperature and interrupting the progression of areas that are in a process of desertification.
Despite the viability of his project, the Egyptian has found difficulties in finding partners. He has presented the proposal to several governmental organizations. All of them have demonstrated interest in the project, but they allege lack of funds.
"The secretariat of Science and Technology of the state of Rio Grande do Norte has also shown interest, but has not yet answered," explained the researcher, who is also after companies and non-government organizations interested in developing his dates.
"I believe that a large part of this resistance is due to the fact that it is not a fruit of the region. This is a shortsighted point of view as it is a project with great potential. But there must be ample work to introduce this new fruit," he explains.
According to him, the partners could also help by supplying a structure for development of the saplings. "Despite having a capacity for production of a large number of trees, the Biotechnology Laboratory at UFRN does not have sufficient structure for acclimatization," he laments.
He, who is one of the pioneers in the cloning of plants in the Northeast, believes that the future of the entire region is in investment in agriculture and technology.
"The progress is slow due to lack of resources. I am very sorry, as we could be doing much more. With the support of the government, we could develop the region, putting into practice what we are developing in the laboratory," he explains.
Despite the lack of interest of partners for the production of dates, the agronomist is celebrating an agreement signed between the UFRN and the Bank of the Northeast (BNB), which has already made possible research for the production of special cashew and Brazilian plum trees. "We intend to produce these trees in great quantity and distribute them to small producers, family farmers," explained Magdi.
The laboratory received 128,000 Brazilian reais (around US$ 65,000) for the project and the result of the studies is that cashew, abundant in the region, may be produced with quality control, as is the case with the Brazilian cherry, a fruit that is facing extinction.
The city of Serra do Mel, 320 kilometers away from Natal, will be one of those benefited by the initiative. "The city currently lives off cashew trading, but the fruit produced there is native, and does not produce large volumes of fruit," explains the agronomist, who plans to distribute around 50 saplings to the farming families in Serra do Mel.
Apart from production of saplings of native fruit, the BNB resources are also being employed in the modernization of the Vegetable Biotechnology Laboratory, which has been developing research on plant cloning for 23 years. According to Magdi, the site is also going to receive a center for conservation of native species that are facing extinction.
"The funds should be spent in phases. Therefore, apart from modernizing the laboratory, we are creating a germplasm bank, where we will keep some threatened species in vitro," explained the laboratory coordinator.
According to him, the preservation in laboratory will be a reference in the Northeast, where there are only similar experiments in the field.
"In vitro, we guarantee that the plants will not suffer natural accidents, being threatened by climate conditions and diseases," he explained.
The researcher also added that the redoing of the existing structure in the laboratory should be ready by the end of the year, but that the establishment of the conservation center is a long-term project.
The research for genetic improvement of the plants in Rio Grande do Norte began in 1984, with Magdi Ahmed's arrival – he is a doctor in biotechnology from Université de Pierre e Marie Curie (Paris) – at UFRN.
At the time, there was no laboratory, and no qualified personnel specialized in genetic engineering at the University. Determined, Magdi sent a project to the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and managed to collect funds for the purchase of equipment, as well as scholarships for graduation students to work in the laboratory.
Today, apart from coordinating the space and teaching vegetable physiology, the Egyptian also has a base for research on vegetable biotechnology and is a consultant at the Rio Grande do Norte Agricultural Research Organization (Emparn) and of the CNPq itself.
Anba – www.anba.com.br