In 2022, date production in Tunisia went through a major crisis. The reasons were complex, ranging from climate change to panicked farmers using pesticides. But there is a happy ending for nature.
Anyone travelling throughout the central region of Tunisia on the edge of the desert between October and December will see dates everywhere. They are harvested every day and sold in all shapes, colours and sizes at the markets. For many people in the central desert region, life revolves around dates, a fruit that also plays an important role in their culture. Without dates, not only would the country be missing a delicious dietary staple, it would also lose one of its biggest sources of income.
Depending on which statistics you look at, Tunisia can rank third among the world's major date exporters. For example in 2021, the small country accounted for 10.6% of global production with around 214 million tonnes. The Tunisian date is also in demand in other parts of the world.
This position is by no means a given, as we discovered in 2022. The harvest that year was worse than ever and directly impacted us at gebana. Our partner of many years, South Organic – formerly gebana Maghreb – struggled to deliver the expected quantities. And not everything we received was saleable.
The region around the town of Kébili was affected by an unusually long and intense drought that summer. It led to a massive increase in mites in the date oases throughout the region as well as outside Tunisia in neighbouring Algeria.
This alone was already a big problem. But things got even worse.
The infestation caused many family farmers to panic and treat their date palms with pesticides. Which is perfectly understandable - the palm trees have often been in the family for generations and are an important source of income.
Did the family farmers who supply us also use pesticides? No. South Organic works exclusively with certified organic producers. They are not allowed to use chemically synthesised pesticides.
However, the date oases in the region around Kébili are a loose network of small, individual plots. The 227 family farmers that South Organic works with cultivate an average of just 1 hectare per family.
With so many families, the chances are high that at least one of the neighbouring plots is not producing organically. If a neighbour then sprays pesticides during an active infestation and is careless in doing so, a bit of wind is enough to carry the toxins to the border of the organic plot. And that's exactly what happened in the summer of 2022.
This became clear when we analysed the dates and kept finding localised contamination. Although there were usually only minute traces of pesticides, it meant that South Organic was unable to sell several batches as organic. The financial consequences were so enormous that the company only survived thanks to its reserves. South Organic won't be able to handle another setback.
A bad situation becomes an opportunity for nature
In response, the companies in the sector turned to the national authorities and asked for support in the fight against pesticide use. In order to support organic date exporters, the government recommended the exclusive use of organic insecticides, including for conventionally farmed plots, subsidised their purchase and carried out educational work in the sector. South Organic introduced a strict prevention and monitoring programme. The aim is to prevent any contamination from happening again.
Led by Khawla Kriden, head of the internal control department, the company helped family farmers this year to boost the treatment of their fields with natural pesticides approved for organic farming, such as sulphur, neem and borax. "Our experts, Special unit Al Wahaat, planned and supervised two phases of preventive treatment in April and June and a curative treatment in August in cases where the palms were still harbouring mites," says Kriden.
Neighbours of South Organic producers also benefited from this programme. South Organic distributed free organic pesticides to neighbours and raised awareness about the challenges of organic farming.
"This year, we started work very early to optimise the harvest and prevent mites. We prepared and treated the plots as early as January," says Kriden. "We are now in charge of training the farmers and regularly monitoring the measures. Everything was meticulously documented to ensure that pests don't stand a chance."
The climate provides respite
Tunisian family farmers have no control over climate changes. They are subject to climate conditions, which are becoming increasingly unpredictable. While 2022 proved particularly harsh, 2023 provided a much-needed respite with milder temperatures in spring.
South Organic's preventive measures, along with the favourable weather conditions, literally bore fruit: The trees are healthy, and the oases are bursting with juicy dates, as we discovered during our visit in October.
And so, the crisis became an opportunity to reinforce sustainable farming. 2022 shocked the entire region, even the entire industry that is so important for Tunisia.
South Organic has overcome this difficult phase and turned it into an opportunity despite financial difficulties. The company raised environmental awareness and introduced conventional date growers to sustainable farming methods.
"The question remains whether the neighbours of our family farmers will continue to use organic pesticides in the long term. It takes time to change people's mentality, especially in a culture so steeped in tradition, as in the date sector," says Fathia Rejeb, Quality Manager at South Organic. But she and her team are persevering.