|For almost a decade, global demand for organic products has seen a steady increase. According to UN figures, in 2006 the global organic market stood at nearly $40 billion, making up 2% of food retails. By 2012 it is expected to reach $70 billion. Organic produce is usually 20-50% more expensive than non-organic, yet despite this, since the late 1990s the organic market has achieved exponential growth of about 20-25% a year. The increased demand for organic produce has enabled some local farmers to increase their incomes nine-fold.|
In Lebanon, organic farming has seen growth inline with the general global increase; however, the 2006 Summer War dramatically slowed it. According to the Association for Lebanese Organic Agriculture (ALOA), 10% of organic farms in Lebanon were contaminated by cluster bombs and the general follow-on effects of the war, such as lost harvest and incapacity to prepare land for the next season, have only just subsided in 2008. Consumption of organic products has also been hurt through the current political deadlock, the general economic slowdown and a severe lack of awareness and understanding of what ‘organic’ actually means.
How to define organic?
In Lebanon, organic processing is mostly focused on the production of foods typically used in Lebanese cuisine, such as olive oil, oregano mix, orange blossom water, and traditional Lebanese jams and recipes. One of the main obstacles to the growth of organic produce is the confusion that reigns among the public over the definition of organic.
People commonly confuse baladi products, which are locally grown, with being organic, and supermarkets in Lebanon often put organic products near diet products, leading many people equating the two.
Souk el-Tayeb, a weekly farmers market in central Beirut, is often thought of as being an organic market. However, Kamal Mouzawak, one of the market’s organizers, is at pains to stress that this is not the case. “People don’t understand what organic means. It is not just ‘clean’. For food it has a certification process.” He went on to state that at Souk el-Tayeb there is a clear separation between the 15 certified organic and the 32 local non-certified producers. Organic produce has to comply with a strict set of rules and regulations and something can only be called organic if it has the required certification.
Organic farming can best be described as a holistic approach that aims at producing food within an environment ecologically balanced between the soil, the plants and the animals, and not simply as replacing synthetic pesticides and fertilizers for organic ones. As much as possible, organic farmers must try and rely on crop rotation, green manure, compost, biological pest control and so on. For a product to be called or certified ‘organic’ the whole cycle must be organic.
|For instance, to make organic apricot jam one cannot just use organic apricots but the other ingredients and even the packaging must be organic. Also for a farm to be organic it must not only ensure that it uses organic techniques but that the land next to the farm is free from contamination and the chemicals it uses are not seeping into the organic farmland.|
The significant hurdle to organic production in Lebanon is that the foundations of organic products lay in the concept of its strict rules and regulation that are embodied in the process of certification. Yet, in Lebanon, due to the current political deadlock, the necessary laws have not been passed to ensure that certification is placed within the framework of the law. Lebanon does have two local certifiers, Libancert and IMC, that are re-certified by international organic bodies. But without the requirement of certification being enshrined in law, legally in Lebanon anyone can call themselves organic. Roula Fares, general manager of LibanCert, said that, “many farmers are calling themselves ‘organic’ because they think reducing the amount of pesticides and fertilizers they are using makes them organic.”
Training farmers to understand what an organic approach to agriculture involves has been an essential part of the effort by civil society groups that are eager to see organic farming grow in Lebanon. Rami Zriek, professor of agriculture at AUB and one of the first to help develop the organic sector in Lebanon, said that one of the problems of organic farming in Lebanon was the fact that it was not born by the farmers but parachuted in by well-meaning individuals. The repercussions of this are that many of the farmers are not committed to organic farming beyond an economic rationale, putting organic sector at the mercy of the market.
But problems exist at an even more basic level. As a report by the Ministry of Environment states, the majority of farmers in Lebanon lack basic agricultural training and the high rates of illiteracy among them have also made effective communication and training difficult.
The need for capacity building
Many of the local and international civil society organizations have established workshops and various other training programs to provide training for the more knowledge-intensive methods of organic farming. But Corinne Deek, of the German Heinrich Böll Foundation, said that in reality the only farmers that can move towards organic agriculture are the relatively well educated, ‘elite’ ones. As she said, “Organic farming needs significant capacity building but no one is doing it.”
Others object to this point of view, and particularly Zriek who strongly disagrees with the idea that it is hard to train local farmers into becoming organic growers. His argument is that there is a traditional body of knowledge, passed down from generation to generation, that can still be drawn on to help farmers become organic, and that the report by the Ministry of Agriculture should be taken with a pinch of salt. “Farmers [in Lebanon] are highly trainable and workable. Skills and training are not the limiting factors to organic farming in Lebanon, but marketing [is].”
Organic produce in Lebanon is no doubt still a niche market. According to Rania Touma, president of the ALOA and general manager of Healthy Basket, although there are no exact figures, organic produce accounts for less than 1% of the current market for food produce in Lebanon. Healthy Basket sells much of its produce on the basis of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). The CSA aims to create a strong bond between producer and consumer, with the central idea being that the consumers purchase a share of the farmers harvest at the beginning of the season.
At Healthy Basket, 50% of their produce is sold on the basis of CSA in which customers pay a month in advance for four weekly baskets of produce. Zriek, however, thinks that there is problem with this system for Lebanese customers in that, with organic farming, the farmer can only produce a limited array of produce and not all year round, whereas Lebanese customers want all the produce every week.
Zriek added that in Europe and the United States, the CSA concept includes the consumer going to the farms and picking up the produce, helping to establish a bond between the consumer and producer that the industry relies upon, but in Lebanon the tendency is for people to want their goods delivered directly to their door. Healthy Basket overcame these local demands by engaging different farmers in different locations to obtain a wider array of produce and to ensure that, as much as possible, produce is available all year round. In a local twist, the ubiquitous Lebanese scooter service was adapted for the delivery of organic produce to the customer’s door.
Competition in the region
However, organic producers have not managed to convince the hospitality sector to go organic and many Lebanese customers cannot accept that some produce will not be available all year round or are unwilling to pay the extra premium for organic products.
In 2005/06 Healthy Basket had begun to export some of its goods, but strong organic markets in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Egypt pushed out Lebanese produce. Touma explained that, compared to the rest of the region, in Lebanon production is expensive because there is little subsidy from the government, and during the initial years, organic produce is very costly to develop.
However, Zriek pointed at an essential difference between the regional organic agriculture sectors, saying that “Lebanon is lucky in that its citizens eat the products that are produced here, as opposed to Morocco and Egypt where the best produce is exported to Europe and elsewhere,” resulting in a situation where despite having well-developed organic agriculture and high quality produce most of Egypt’s and Morocco’s citizens eat sub-standard produce. “Exporting high value crops and importing low value is not the philosophy of organic agriculture.”
Organic agriculture as a philosophy has also often been talked about in terms of reducing rural poverty, the vulnerability of rural woman and increasing food security. World Vision, a Christian relief and development organization, began two large organic farming projects in Lebanon at a cost of $14 million. According to the organization, these projects are “a response to the struggling agricultural sector in Lebanon because it creates sustainable job opportunities for struggling Lebanese farmers and improved incomes for their families, as well as for others involved in the harvesting, processing, marketing and sale of high quality organic produce and products.” World Vision claims that around 700 farmers have participated in the projects and 18,000 people have directly benefited from the program. Although many cynics wonder how organic farming, being as knowledge-intensive an industry as it is, can help the poor, Zriek is among those who concur with the World Vision approach and its benefits, and claims that the very ethos to organic farming is poverty alleviation.
He dreams of a day when the whole of Lebanon will be completely organic but warns that this can only ever be realized if the government takes a more active role. “Currently only civil society is putting its mind to achieving this dream and this is not enough.” But in Lebanon, dreams are rarely realized through government. It is through the dynamic and resourceful private and civil society sectors that the country has survived and thrived. If organic agriculture is to prosper in Lebanon and go beyond global trends, then the civil society groups must create a second awakening for Lebanese consumers and convince them of its benefits.