Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis has highlighted the importance of well-functioning productive sectors—namely agriculture and industry—to a country’s GDP and economic well-being. This was further emphasized with the COVID-19 global pandemic significantly slowing down trade, disrupting food supply chains, and forcing each country to think of its own supply needs first.
Executive spoke with Nadine Khoury, chief operating officer of Jbeil-headquartered Robinson Agri, a greenhouse producer and provider of agricultural and irrigation products and services with customized turnkey projects, to learn about how COVID-19 is impacting agriculture in Lebanon and what potential opportunities can be gleaned from this challenging time.
How has COVID-19 impacted Lebanon’s farmers and the agriculture sector in general?
In Lebanon, the agriculture sector was already suffering from the severe economic crisis and now their challenges have been compounded with this crisis.
In his March 22 statement, the minister of interior placed the agriculture sector on the list of exceptions [that can continue to operate under certain conditions, despite the lockdown] and the minister of agriculture also stated (in a decree issued on March 23) that farmers and agricultural companies can continue to operate, but under reduced hours.
This is important because agriculture companies are an essential part of the food supply chain and we should make sure that our country’s food supply is not disrupted by unforeseen events. For example, at Robinson Agri, our skeletal warehouse is open only on schedule for the delivery of materials and the receiving of orders, although now it is the growing season and the whole sector is usually busy.
Another problem is that growers need workers to sow seeds and seedlings and do other tasks, as most farms are not yet mechanized in Lebanon and we don’t have the machinery whereby one employee in a plant machine can plant the whole field. Because of COVID-19, farmers have reduced the number of workers on the field and are following precautionary measures so the growing phase is taking a longer time.
In times like these, it is very important for us not only to give tribute to healthcare providers but also growers and food suppliers who are working daily to bring food and fresh fruits and vegetables to our plate.
Do you think that this crisis will serve to foster more value and consideration for the agriculture sector?
We cannot take the agriculture sector for granted anymore. Lebanon’s economic crisis opened our eyes to the importance of productive sectors, especially agriculture. Studies from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) indicate that 65 percent of the land in Lebanon is arable and yet only 25 percent of that is planted.
So the potential is huge.
Yes, it is. What is happening today is that because of the corona crisis, we are no longer able to import [foodstuffs and agriculture supplies] as much as before. In Lebanon, we already had difficulties importing because of the liquidity problem, and now, because of corona, each country is taking care of its own needs first. What is affecting the world is also affecting us and here we are talking about decreased productivity, decreased transport etc.
To give you a simple example, I am now being asked to place orders from European companies five months in advance whereas before orders needed a maximum of 20 days to be processed. This is because globally all companies have reduced their working hours and are under a lot of pressure.
What will be the impact on this season’s harvest and our supply of locally grown vegetables and fruits?
We had already received seed varieties for some families of products before the corona crisis had started but were too late for the irrigation equipment and some fertilizers.
Because of the economic crisis, many growers had already planted roughly half the amount they usually do. Even if, let us consider that, consumers will stick to the bare minimum of food needs because of their decreased purchasing power, the produce we are talking about are considered basics. In Lebanon, can you live without tomatoes when a big portion of our cuisine is based on tomato sauces? There are some vegetables and fruits that are considered luxuries and one can live without them, but a lot are necessities and less of them has been planted this year.
Also, because of the corona related closures, the season has been disrupted in that many growers delayed planting by up to three weeks (since warehouses decreased their working hours, it takes more time for the farmers to secure the needed seeds).
Will this delay affect the produce?
Yes of course. When you delay planting, it shortens the season and reduces the amount of fruits or vegetables that you harvest. Also, if after planting growers don’t have access to quality fertilizers, plants will not grow properly which will impact the produce.
Agriculture engineers are no longer able to physically visit farmers anymore. Sometimes growers do send them pictures of the plants and agriculture engineers address the issue remotely but it is not the same [as being physically present].
When will we consumers feel the impact of these scenarios?
Starting June or July when it is harvest time. Fruits should be OK because they grow on trees and this year, the weather was favorable for them. Some types of vegetables will also not be affected at the consumer level because big growers had already stocked up on needed seeds and equipment. The problem will be with the small and medium farmers who constitute up to 50 percent of farmers in Lebanon. Their income will be reduced because of their decreased production.
How have you adapted your working environment in light of the government measures taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19?
We are having online meetings via Zoom with our line managers and sales engineers to keep business on track. We are trying to keep our warehouse open as much as possible.
We in the agriculture domain are used to work in uncertainty and difficult circumstances—because we work with nature which is unpredictable—and so we are trying to see what we can offer to mitigate this crisis so that Lebanon doesn’t face a food security problem down the line.
Anything you would like to share in that regard?
We are thinking of ideas that don’t need a lot of investment, since there is a financial problem these days. We are also thinking of how we can support people in planting in their own gardens, about what crops grow best in this scenario, especially for those that have homes in rural areas. We are using our online platforms to promote this idea, encouraging people to visit our nurseries to receive vegetable seedlings and grafted seedlings that are resistant to soil borne disease and climate change and produce more.
When it comes to the farmers, we are trying to support them, regardless of whether they are paying us or not, so they can still plant on time. We also introduced crop varieties that are naturally resistant to diseases so they can decrease the usage of pesticides, if not enough quantities of that are available.
We are also promoting hydroponics, which is a way of planting that produces healthy clean produce with more yield and 90 percent less water and minimum fertilizers. A well-trained farmer or a new investor could seize this opportunity to meet consumer demands and improve the local market.
This interview is part of a wider report on food sufficiency and the food supply chain that Executive will be publishing in the coming weeks. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.