Israel is at the forefront of a dramatic shift in Western markets from the old-fashioned dried dates to fresher, more juicy varieties available year-round New logistical methods that stress cooling and quick distribution, as well as efforts to meet consumer expectations and market the fruit, are behind the shift, Hadiklaim Marketing Vice-President Chezi Almog said Wednesday after a conference in Tel Aviv on date farming that brought together experts from Abu Dhabi, Egypt, France, Jordan, Morocco, and the US, as well as Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The event, opened by Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres, was held at the Tel Aviv Convention Grounds as part of the Agritech 2006 conference on agricultural technology. Hadiklaim - established to market the produce of date farmers in Tzemah, Beit Shean and the Southern Arava - sells 65 percent of the dates produced in Israel, about four-fifths of which are sold abroad, mostly in Europe. Dates were Israel's leading fruit export in 2005, Almog said. Medjool dates have been leading the trend due to their popularity among consumers since they are juicier and bigger than the deglet-noor variety, he noted. In Europe, Israel successfully competes against Californian producers of medjool dates due to geographical proximity and client follow-up. Israeli deglet-noor dates, on the other hand, run up against "tough competition" from cheaper Tunisian and Algerian growers, particularly during Ramadan, but succeed in specific niche markets due to their ability to meet higher standards of quality and hygiene, he said. Large amounts of dates are imported into Europe to meet the demand of the continent's Muslim community for the traditional Ramadan evening meals. Growing name recognition among consumers of Hadiklaim's brands - "Jordan River" for deglet-noors and "King Solomon" for medjools - has also contributed significantly, Almog said. Private labels and exclusivity deals are in place with supermarket chains across the continent. Unlike foreign producers, Israeli date growers have achieved minimal levels of pest damage primarily by isolating the fruit-bearing branches with sacks at an earlier stage and ensuring that the area around the trees is clean, a source in the sector said. "Almost no spraying is done. It is simply not necessary," he said. Participants at the date conference discussed pests and ailments commonly encountered by growers, such as the Bayoud disease, Batrachedra amydraula and the Red Palm Weevil. Since 1998, the Peres Center for Peace has maintained research centers in Egypt and Israel dedicated to providing the region's date farmers with tools to combat the Red Palm Weevil. "Unfortunately, pests coming to the region spread without regard to borders, and damage dates whether they are growing in Israel, Jordan or the Palestinian Authority," said Prof. Samuel Pohoryles, deputy director general and director of the Andreas Agricultural Development Trust. "Only through true cooperation will we succeed to continue effectively handling the problem of the Red Palm Weevil." "The atmosphere at the conference was of working together and cooperation" among all nationalities present, one Israeli date expert said. "It was very beautiful." In other news from the Agritech conference, Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon and India's Federal Minister of Agriculture Sri Sarad Pawar signed an agreement outlining agricultural cooperation between the two countries. Eight agriculture ministers and three governors of various Indian states were present for the signing. "Deepening agricultural cooperation between India and Israel is of great importance, in light of the level of significance of cooperation between the countries in other fields," Simhon said. Based on a similar pact signed between the Israeli and Indian agricultural ministries in 1993, the current agreement foresees joint research funded by a special research fund, the development of agro-business projects involving both countries' private sectors, reciprocal visits by delegations, joint study programs counting toward advanced degrees, including an "agricultural apprenticeship" program. Joint research would focus on dairy farming; methods for more efficient use of water; agriculture in arid regions; genetic modifications and artificial insemination; green houses and technologies for controlling crops; and other topics. Israeli agro-tech companies have already been active in India for years, selling technological know-how and equipment to the country's agricultural sector, the ministry noted. Participants also presented innovations in the field, including bio-diesel produced from seeds, barren flies used to fight the Mediterranean fruit fly, robotic lawnmowers, a device providing a voice announcement of when cows go into heat, and a compact meteorological station for do-it-yourself weather forecasting, alongside a wide variety of modified fruits and vegetables. Some 6,500 visitors from abroad were expected to participate in the conference - the largest ever held at the convention complex - including 17 agriculture ministers and a delegation of 55 heads of Palestinian agricultural associations. The fair includes 200 displays spread out over 30,000 square meters.