Lebanon’s agricultural sector has seen better days. Between 1979 and 1981, the labor force of the agricultural sector accounted for 14% of the total labor force, based on the figures of the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). This dwindled to 3% by 2001. In 1961, Lebanon’s Gross National Agricultural Production stood at LL300 million ($900 million, $1= three pounds), according to statistics compiled by the Lebanese Center for Agricultural Research and Studies. Four decades later, this figure has hardly budged, settling in 2002 at LL1.5 trillion ($1 billion).
“Up until, 1918, Lebanon used to provide the French city of Lyon, with half of its silk threads,” said Riad Saade, the center’s director. “In 1936, the French region of Roquefort used to import half of the raw cheese processed in the caves (bearing its name) from Lebanon.”
The decline in Lebanon’s agricultural output took place during the civil war, but it has been exacerbated in peacetime. The loss of agricultural land to the haphazard construction boom of the 1990’s, competition in the key export markets in the Arab World and the government’s focus on investments put the agricultural sector on the back burner. There have been half-hearted attempts, by successive governments to rehabilitate the sector but the only visible evidence of government backing are random subsides dished out at various times to farmers.
In 2001, the farmers raised an outcry and some replanted illicit crops to protest government inaction toward their plight, which left them trampling surplus produce on the streets. The government responded by allocating LL50 billion ($33 million) for an export subsidy program dubbed Export Plus, which gave farmers cash for exporting quality goods to markets around the world.
In 2004, the government and parliament is scrambling again to save the agricultural sector by extending new subsidies to apples and partially re-instating subsidies to sugar beet farmers to appease would-be voters in a decisive election year.
“Unfortunately, successive Lebanese governments have looked at the agriculture sector from a social rather than a socio-economic point of view,” said Raphael Debbane, head of the agricultural committee of the Union of Chambers of Commerce and Industry in Lebanon. “Tobacco subsidies are pure social help whereby the government buys the crops and throws it away because it cannot sell them on the world market on account of their poor quality. Now they have renewed sugar subsidies in a non-professional way and the main reason for that is socio-political.”
Against this government backing to the agriculture sector, the private sector is finding it harder to compete in the local and international markets, where subsidies are given to farmers on a different basis. “If the subsidies are stopped in developing countries, farmers will suffer but they will survive,” said Imad Bsat, owner of B-fresh agricultural company. “If Export Plus ends, nobody will enforce standards and the sector will collapse.”
IDAL helps farmers sell their quality goods, but it does not tell them what type of crops to plant or what kind of crops are wanted by consumers in world markets. “Technically, Export Plus is a success but economically it is a big failure,” said Saade. “The problem is not money. Export Plus is only one ring in a chain. Other rings are needed.”
The other rings of the chain start with orienting farmers on what to plant according to market demands and what types of products to export. The next chain consists of extending technology to farmers to improve their crops and introduce new varieties through government backed research and financial credit. The final chain is marketing, which is what IDAL handles now, said Saade.
“Under Export Plus, farmers exported some 350,000 tons in 2003, which is equivalent to the amount of citrus Lebanon used to export in the 1970’s and 1980’s,” said Bsat. His family used to own Safa Citrus, one of the country’s largest fruit exporters that shut down in the 1990’s. “The government is spending millions of dollars on subsidizing crops when it should be using this money to fund research and help farmers develop new varieties,” said Bsat.
Agricultural engineers say Lebanon’s farmers are unable to adapt to the new agricultural modes, which rely extensively on technology and marketing. “It is a vicious cycle,” said Debbane. “Lebanese farmers have to get know-how and expertise from outside, which means importing technology at a cost. But if you don’t have money, consequently you have no money to invest in new varieties.”
The odds are stacked against the farmers’ development. Their production costs are significantly higher than their neighboring countries. They once had a monopoly over the Arab markets, but their rising costs and competition from cheaper produce have forced them to lose their edge in their prime markets. Neighboring Arab countries are swamping the Lebanese market with cheap produce while closing their doors to Lebanese produce, which have been hurt by badly negotiated agricultural agreements. Farmers often cite the agreements with Syria, Jordan and Egypt as disastrous and some are even calling for the suspension of Lebanon’s membership to the Greater Arab Free Trade Agreement, which is due to enter into force in 2005.
“All hell is going to break loose once GAFTA is implemented,” said Bsat, who develops his own varieties of fruits and sells them to supermarkets. “We are already facing stiff competition from their produce now and it will only become harder to sell our produce once the markets open further under GAFTA and the World Trade Organization.”
Waddah Fakhri, head of the Southern Farmers’ Association, wants the government to suspend Lebanon’s membership in GAFTA until farmers are ready to compete with goods from the Arab World. “The government has negotiated trade agreements without consulting farmers, who bear higher production costs than neighboring countries and lack the standards needed to export,” said Waddah.
One sector that is set to suffer from the government’s negotiating blunders is the flower industry. Under Lebanon’s Association Agreement with the European Union, tariffs on flowers were fixed at 30% and are set to go down further once Lebanon’s five-year grace period for lowering tariffs on European imports is over. The whole problem started when the government in 2000 slashed tariffs on flowers from 105% to 30% while it was negotiating with the EU. Following lobbying by Lebanon’s flower growers, the government agreed to raise it again to 70%, but it was too late; the Europeans had agreed on 30% and were sticking to it.
“Our sector suffers from government apathy and inconsistent policies toward the agriculture sector,” said Rania Younes, the owner of several nurseries in Lebanon. “Lebanon has human resources and the know-how to compete. We do not need mass agricultural areas to export. We can plant specialized products from small pieces of land.”
Besides the European Agreement, Lebanon’s flower sector is already suffering from a special agreement with Saudi Arabia, which is exporting flowers to Lebanon at minimal tariffs, she added. With only a few good trade agreements, Lebanese farmers require marketing cash to venture into new markets. Outside Export Plus, there is hardly any cash for marketing. “With a 0.4% budget out of the total government budget there is not much we can do,” said Louis Lahoud, director general at the agricultural ministry. “But we are working on a development plan for the agricultural sector to which the government has allocated LL5 billion ($3.3 million).”
Agriculturists agree that the government should start to control the sector by regulating standards and resolving the pricing anarchy in the domestic market that drove agriculturalists to seek price stability of supermarkets, despite stiff competition. “If we are able to regulate standards and prices in the domestic market, it would be much easier to do the same for our exports,” said Bsat.
Agriculturalists also want the ministry of agriculture to direct farmers to plant crops that could be used by the industrial sector. “A potentially successful road for developing the Lebanese agriculture sector is agro-industry,” said Debbane. “The government can develop Export Plus into a scheme inclusive of the agro-industry and a scheme for renewing orchards to introduce new varieties.”
According to Debbane, donors, who have pooled millions of dollars into agricultural projects that were doomed for failure due to political intervention or government inaction, need to divert the funds to the private sector. “Donors helping Lebanon develop its agriculture sector should pass this money to the private sector because the institutions of the Lebanese government have proved to be inefficient.”
THE ISRAELI EXAMPLE
Farmers and agricultural engineers point to the example of Israel, a country whose agricultural space and climate is similar but less diverse than Lebanon, but whose export potential has been propelled by staunch government backing. Similar to Lebanon, Israel’s agricultural land was being eaten away by a construction boom, declining number of farmers and a strain on its limited water resources, which had to be used to irrigate extensive desert land that Lebanon does not have. That did not stop the Israeli government from forging ahead in the 1990’s with an aggressive marketing campaign and research.
“When Israeli farmers wanted to introduce a new variety of grapes into England, the government spent $1 to $2 million on the marketing campaign,” said agricultural engineer Imad Bsat. Israel in the 1960’s was primarily known for the famous Jaffa oranges, but in the 1990’s its agricultural landscape changed. Instead of planting just citrus products, the Israeli government heavily invested into research, prodding its traditional farmers in the kibbutzes to adopt new agricultural products.
Currently, Israel’s exports around $200 million a year in flowers – a third of its fresh agricultural exports – an amount equivalent to Lebanon’s annual agro-industrial exports. “Each day an El Al plane leaves Tel Aviv and lands in Holland, the world’s flower market, carrying fresh flowers,” said economist Riad Saade. “Flowers are an example of a high-value added industry that can be easily developed in Lebanon.”
Lebanon’s flower exports in 2003 were around $300,000, based on customs figures. According to the Israeli government, it provides nearly 40% of Europe’s off-season fruit and vegetable market, and ranks second only to Holland in European flower sales. Israel’s fresh and processed agricultural exports stood at $1 billion in 2002. Nearly 60% of its exports were fresh produce, mainly headed to Europe, based on the figures of the Israeli ministry of agriculture. Israel does not only export agricultural produce, its also exports around $1 billion in agricultural technology each year.