A sector worth saving

Creating growth is vital for Lebanon

Illustration by Ivan Debs

“Pity the nation that eats a bread it does not harvest,” wrote Gebran Khalil Gebran back in 1934. Lebanon, which today imports up to 80 percent of its food needs (according to a yet to be published report prepared for ESCWA,) is far from harvesting its own bread and is in dire need of redesigning and modernizing its agriculture sector.    

While it is unlikely Lebanon will ever be 100 percent food sufficient (producing enough food items to feed its own people) due to a variety of reasons ranging from its small size to the high cost involved in reaching that level of sufficiency, the potential to be more competitive, closer to food self-sufficiency and less food insecure (see Last Word page 104) is too big to be squandered.

Lebanon has a unique climate and topography compared to the rest of the region, allowing it to accommodate the planting of different produce at different altitudes. While the country has 250,000 hectares of agricultural land, only around 70,000 hectares of it is currently irrigated: the rest is therefore not being maximized to its full potential.

Today agriculture contributes only 5.5 percent to Lebanon’s GDP but even within that percentage, a lot can, and should, be done to maximize its impact on the country and on the livelihoods of the people working within that sector. These workers account for 20 to 30 percent of the population and are generally of a low socioeconomic level, according to Isam Bashour, professor of agriculture at American University of Beirut.

The potential is there but it is being buried under a lack of planning and management. Moreover, there is chaos across the farming industry as a result of a lack of regulation and monitoring of anything, ranging from what and how much pesticide to use to the quality of water used in irrigation, to post-harvest control (see overview page 16). 

Before the sector can develop any further, the farming industry needs regulations to ensure the quality and safety of produce: there should be national guidelines and procedures across all levels of the farming process. More importantly, a ministerial monitoring body needs to be put in place to make sure these regulations are enforced, with consequences if they are not. Those in the agriculture sector, from farmers to wholesalers, need to know that “cutting corners” will not be tolerated anymore and consumers need to be able to trust that locally-grown produce, even if not internationally certified, is still safe to eat.

The sector would also benefit from a long-term strategic plan that would outline its development of more modern methods of farming and a more diverse range of produce, instead of most farmers planting the same crops every year, such as potatoes and apples, which is largely what is happening now. This would also make Lebanese produce more competitive within the export market and improve the livelihood of farmers by bettering the ways in which they currently work. The good news is Lebanon already has a five year plan for the development of the agricultural sector. The Ministry of Agriculture Strategy 2015-2019 report has eight courses of action ranging from sustainable development, to modernizing farming, to getting more youth involved in the sector. If this strategy is implemented to the fullest it could mean a lot of positive changes within the agriculture sector. But with a ministerial allocation of 0.5 percent of the state’s total budget, and with previous experience of government-led initiatives, progress is most likely to be stilted or slow.

The developing and reinforcing of regulations, and the creation of a nationwide strategic plan for the sector, is the role and responsibility of the government through the Ministry of Agriculture. But in Lebanon, the private sector and institutions have always had a role to play in the development of the country and agriculture should be no exception.

Already, educational institutions around the country are involved in applied research projects on the utilization of innovative farming techniques in the country. Within the past five years, there has been a rise in private sector entrepreneurial initiatives within the farming sector, whether through introducing new crop varieties to the country or new products derived from existing produce (see profiles starting page 24) or simply the betterment of the quality of existing produce (see Biomass Q&A page 34). These entrepreneurs have demonstrated the opportunities that exist within the farming sector, developing a local and export market for their produce, and have shown us what can happen when innovation and new ways of thought are applied to this sector. 

Such private sector investments should be highlighted and more of them should be encouraged through incentives. Kafalat should be commended for the work it has done in supporting small and medium enterprises, many of which are within the agricultural sector, but similar loans need to be offered for larger-scale operations if they are to grow to a national level.

In short, the agriculture sector in Lebanon has been neglected for too long. If we want to improve our resources and maximize the very real potential we have right here on our soil then it is time to rethink our approach to the sector and to join the modern farming world.

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