Organic shelves and refrigerators filled with (fresh) organic products can be found in most Lebanese supermarkets these days. A few years ago, these products would have been hard, if not impossible, to source. Nour Farra-Haddad lists 23 companies and food stores under “bio and organic products” in “Eco-Lebanon Nature & Rural Tourism: A Guide to Unveil Lebanon” published in 2013 — clearly organic products are no longer leading a shadow existence and the sector, though small, is growing in Lebanon.
In the United States and Europe (notably France, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany), the organic sector reached two-figure growth rates in 2012. According to a press release issued by BIOFACH, the world’s largest trade fair for organic food, organic sales in Germany that year attained a record high of 7 billion euro ($9.6 billion), up by 6 percent, with demand exceeding supply.
Organic products tend to be considered a privilege of the moneyed with price tags usually exceeding non-organic products. Asked why consumers should fork out LL5,000 ($3.30) for a simple but beautifully designed, recyclable and informative carton containing six Biomass eggs (“certified organic according to the European regulation”) instead of spending half on non-organic or baladi eggs, Mario Massoud, executive manager of Biomass, explains that indeed the price gap in Lebanon is bigger.
“We have to buy French chicken feed, which costs quite a bit. You won’t find organic feed in Lebanon. Biomass does not use GMOs [genetically modified organisms], or any growth-enhancers. Our chickens are free range and when a chicken is sick the animal is put into quarantine. Our organic eggs are free from antibiotics and pesticides,” Massoud says.
It took two years for a substantial amount of Lebanese customers to opt for the costlier egg box. “In 2007, when we started with eggs, we used to sell one out of nine boxes. We had the most expensive eggs,” Massoud recalls. Due to growing demand, Biomass established a commercial project in early 2010 and has grown from three to 40 employees. Biomass has 2,000 chickens at their Batroun farm and another 8,000 on nine other farms. Their organic eggs, initially rejected, have advanced to a bestselling product.
Straight from the source
Massoud’s family decided to convert their land in Batroun after the Mediterranean Institute of Certification (IMC) came to Lebanon in 2004 to promote the organic sector. They began the conversion process in 2007 with IMC help and were certified in 2010.
IMC certification is an intensive process which, depending on the size of the land farmed and variety of activities for use, can cost between $300 and $6,000. It comes with support from the IMC and controls and guidelines requiring organic farmers to use organic seeds, while forbidding the use of synthetic chemicals and GMOs. Given the limited availability of local organic seeds, Biomass has to import them from Europe and the US (adding a significant carbon footprint to their products).
“We do companion planting, crop rotations and work according to seasonality,” Massoud explains. “To maximise diversity, we work with different altitudes and 30 to 40 farmers [across Lebanon] to ensure a maximum variety of products. These farmers all needed to be certified with IMC.” The collaboration with farmers has created employment for an additional 150 to 200 people.
Biomass presently has 150 to 200 points of sale. Their range of fresh fruit and vegetables totals 180, with 10 types of lettuce alone, four to five kinds of salad, 50 types of vegetables and around the same amount of fruit.
Grocery products include olives, grains and pulses, pickles and mouneh and olive oil pressed by Willani, a local IMC certified olive oil producer. Furthermore jams, spices and dried herbs, and three types of chicken meat bear the Biomass label.
Henri Bou Obeid set up Bioland back in 2009, an organic producer and store with considerable investment, under the banner “from farm to fork”. For the land he’s purchased including landscaping, Bou Obeid, who has a background in environmental engineering and is managing director at Connex, invested $3 million for the Bioland shop, another $2 million for the vehicles and he employs 40 full time staff, mostly farmers.
Owning three farms, spreading over 200,000 square meters, Bou Obeid makes honey, grows 40 kinds of fruits and seasonal vegetables, and raises goats, pigeons, geese, ducks, rabbits and chicken.
The Bioland shop in Beirut, open since December 2013, was preceded by a fleet of refrigerated vans selling fresh organic produce door-to-door, and aims to dispel the myth that organic products lack in variety. Besides dairy, meat, fruit and vegetable counters, customers can find preserves, snacks and cereals, Lebanese and French organic wines, olive oils, syrups, honey, pasta, pulses and grains, all produced by a variety of international and local organic producers, including Biomass and Bioland. The shop also has a salad bar and customers can sit down for a sandwich for LL6,000 ($4) or one of the three “plats du jours” for LL16,000 ($11). Alternatively meals or products can be delivered.
Chef Joe Barza came on board and developed the organic menu to prove that organic can be simple, tasty and affordable. “But even with these big efforts some still find the prices too high,” Bou Obeid says. “As we noticed that there is a lack of communication, we explain in a concise way to customers the obvious principles of organic chicken, dairy, eggs, meat,” Bou Obeid explains, mainly through info tables placed on counter tops.
Obstacles to overcome
“Organic agriculture holds 0.48 percent of the market. It’s a shame to have such a small percentage, so it needs to be sold at accessible prices,” Bou Obeid says. “Meat is selling well at the shop. The same goes for poultry. This reflects the Lebanese shopping basket, of which 70 percent is meat, chicken and dairy.”
Bioland has secured 12 business-to-business clients including restaurants, schools, specialised shops, nutrition centers and kindergartens. “Having organic shops and B2B orders is important for our financial equilibrium,” Bou Obeid says.
The company uses e-marketing and places ads on Connex buses, organizes in-shop tastings and relies heavily on social media, managing a busy Facebook page. On the other hand, Biomass has focused on branding exercises but communicates very little.
A lack of awareness from consumers around artisanal baladi products — which are not necessarily certified organic — and the cost of production are some of the key challenges Biomass and Bioland face. “Ensuring freshness of their goods and the availability of products are further challenges,” Massoud says. Being forced to fall back on foreign raw materials such as seeds and animal feed draws production costs up and this is reflected in the price.
Both Massoud and Bou Obeid are hopeful that positive change is imminent. “There is now at the Ministry of Agriculture a national committee for organic agriculture. Based on the committee recommendations, the ministry has already issued several decrees,” Massoud says. Bou Obeid regrets that there is still no Lebanese logo such as the French ‘AB’ (agriculture bio). “The only visual identity is the IMC logo and that’s Italian.”
Bou Obeid deplores the fact that bureaucratic hurdles prevent him from importing French auxiliary insects — for example ladybirds that fight pests, a substitute for pesticides. “There also is a lack of help from the Lebanese government to export organic produce. We could export olive oil to China!”
Since 2013 Biomass has been exporting to Gulf countries, notably Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman and is completing a large new warehouse in Batroun to absorb more quantities for export and the local market.
“The government should provide more support for organic agriculture and encourage new farmers to go in this direction. There are more shops opening, more restaurants want organic ingredients and more people want organic food,” Massoud says. “We’re working on widening our product range and reach in Lebanon and are constantly looking for local farmers to join, and working with farmers to see how prices can be reduced.” To eventually facilitate a more direct contact with the consumer Massoud hopes to soon open a Biomass outlet.
Massoud concedes that due to the high overheads the company has been losing money the past seven years. “Biomass is not profitable yet, but will be within the next year or two.” In 2012, French investors Unibel came on board, taking a 35 percent share.
Bioland expects returns in the realm of $700,000 to $800,000 for 2014, which Bou Obeid considers little, when looking at his investments. Among his plans for 2014 is the launch of a restaurant in Batroun as well as an organic wine. He will also be acquiring another farm and launching quality certificates.
While he has already received requests for franchises, Bou Obeid prefers to put a quality manual together this year. “Something like our bible, if one day we give a franchise. Right now that is not our target.”
Riding the macro wave
After years of hosting and consulting customers, supplying them with imported organic products and feeding them macrobiotic meals, Odette Aghajanian bought a shop space at the Saint Joseph Medical Centre in Achrafieh in 1995 and named it MacrOdette.
“It was a boom,” her daughter Tania Aghajanian Kayrouz says. “I remember, taxis from Jordan and Syria, wealthy people, sending a car once a month in the mid-90s to be filled up with organic goods. Mariam Nour was promoting the macrobiotic diet; Kuwaitis came to eat at her place. A great amount of our turnover was due to demand from outside Lebanon, about 40 percent.”
Aghajanian started her quest for a better diet when her husband had to lower his cholesterol and discovered and embraced macrobiotics while in France in the 70s. “Macrobiotics is a diet based on eating wholewheat rice, miso, tamari [fermented soya sauce], organic cereals such as barley, oats, millet, pulses [legumes], seaweed and fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables and no dairy,” Kayrouz says. “I have four children. All four are ski and athletics champions. They never had milk, besides being breast fed for one year. There is not a single drug in our house.”
Back from France, Odette started sourcing organic products, notably French and Belgian brands Tama, Lima, Celnat and Jean Hervé through people coming from abroad, eventually deciding to request organic products directly from the manufacturers, and became their (sole) agent for the Middle East.
Besides still selling some of the original imported organic brands her mother introduced here, Kayrouz stocks few Lebanese products, except for Adonis Valley, local fresh produce, and darfyie (a goat’s cheese).
“I have no faith in Lebanese producers, there’s no way to check,” Kayrouz says. “If I am dealing with someone who has cancer, I need to know that this apple has not been sprayed!”
Despite the challenges, including transport costs, bureaucratic hurdles of paperwork and the Beirut port, MacrOdette imports most organic products. “Our goods are stuck at the harbor, they’re running tests…I paid the order in October.”
“Some people tell me that they’ve seen a product sold for 1 euro in Europe and question why I sell it for more. I have to pay for internal transport from the manufacturer/producer to the port, then maritime transport, pay for the container, the lab, and given the expiry dates and delays, there may be some waste, so we may go up to 6 euros.”
Kayrouz says things have improved since her mother began; people, in part due to various food scandals, are better informed today. “As a result, red and white quinoa, linseed, chia, goji berries and coconut oil [linked to an improvement in Alzheimer’s patients] have become very popular.”