Food plays only a minor role on the national balance sheet, where agriculture is said to contribute about 8% to GDP, and it certainly doesn’t figure with any prominence in the budget. With subsidizing sugar beets and tobacco, the only somewhat significant government funding support for agriculture goes to crops that in the opinion of numerous experts have no future. The agriculture sector suffers most from insufficient public sector guidance and support, said Ragy Darwish, agricultural resource economist at AUB. “The unclear policies at the ministry of agriculture are the main problem,” he said. A second main reason for the sector’s shortfalls were the long years of civil war, he said, adding, “infrastructure and institutions have been degraded.”
But does that really matter, in context of the dwindling role of agriculture in the Lebanese economy? From a utilitarian perspective in the globalized age, food autarky is no longer the worthy policy it once was. But food security remains an issue of national economic and political importance also under conditions of globalization. “Few countries have succeeded in their economic takeoff without reinforcing their agricultural production and processing capacities,” stated the director of France‘s national agricultural research institute (INRA), Bertrand Hervieu, in a 2003 lecture. “No country can be developed or reconstructed without a minimum of agricultural economy and without being somewhat self-sufficient as regards food.” If this sector warrants strategic deliberation, it is for reasons of the unique attributes of food being at once essential livelihood, cultural identity and valuable commodity – which makes agriculture a multiple theme of food security, societal character and an economic factor. “I see agriculture as having a very important role because it is part of the basic foundation of a country, distinguishing it from its surroundings. Therefore, it is a potential source of comparative advantage and for building value-added,” said Khater Abi Habib, economist, anthropologist, and current chairman of Lebanon’s National Institution for Guarantee of Deposits and the Kafalat loan guarantee corporation. In his opinion, public and private sectors will under all economic scenarios need to invest heavily into agriculture. This doesn’t mean, however, that it would be realistic to aim for agriculture to regain an increased share of economic output. In a new positive development cycle, the basic production of commodity foodstuff would be outpaced by faster growing sectors of the economy. Whether the current contribution of agriculture to GDP reaches 8% or not, “the country remains on such a level because GDP has not risen as we had hoped,” Abi Habib said. “If our per capita income goes up significantly, we would have to invest heavily into agriculture to keep its share of GDP at 3% to 4%.”
Another consideration crucial in assessing the macroeconomic role of agriculture is the agro sector‘s massive technical development. While the high-tech revolution of the late 20th century is widely known for its immense rate of progress, the productivity increases of agriculture have been no less impressive in the larger picture of human sustainability. Over the past half century, agro productivity has grown faster than the world population, and agro industry rose to defining the sector’s viability.
The impact of the reversal of dominion by which food processing became economically more important than food growing has made farmers as dependent on agro industry demand as they are on weather and soil. Mismatches between production and demand thus count among the main problems of local agriculture. According to Darwish, some farmers who are situated just 200 meters away from agro industry companies dump their products, while the industrialists import food for processing from the region and even Eastern Europe. The remedy generally prescribed for alleviating the problem of underdeveloped collaboration in the sector is the formation of communication mechanisms. Based on the saying that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, Darwish and his colleagues proposed the creation of a Consortium du Agriculture National du Liban, or CANDL, as an instrument to bring all stakeholders in agriculture – farmers, agro industrialists, research institutions, statisticians and public policy makers – together, “to establish communication and work jointly for increased efficiency.” Private sector enterprises have invested considerable amounts into building agro processing capacities. However, many of these industrialists found that what is true for Lebanese industry in general, just as much applies to their situation: the domestic market is too small for justifying the capital outlays required for a modern agro industrial operation, and exports are the only viable proposition for sustainable agro processing. The Lebanese government has recently taken the first steps towards promoting agro industrial products abroad, through a pilot program for participation in food trade fairs, managed by the IDAL agency. Over the past three years, IDAL had also been entrusted with the promotion of Lebanese produce exports, which helped stabilizing production of farms but has yet to succeed in opening new markets. As things stand today, achieving marketability of Lebanese produce in Europe is a “long process” that will still require a considerable effort in educating agriculturalists, the chairman of IDAL, Samih Barbir, told EXECUTIVE (interview on page xx).
In popular local debates, excursions into the topic of Lebanese agricultural production almost invariably assume aspects of a historic comparison, measuring the national output of vegetables, fruits and cereals against the famed past when this fertile realm was the breadbasket of a much larger region than it is today. Lebanon still provides highly fertile ground. It needs to correlate its capacities for agricultural production and industrial agro processing to the role that this sector can play in a modern macroeconomic concert. According to Abi Habib, viewing agriculture under this perspective reveals development potentials not only for farming and agro industry but also for quality of life, attracting foreign companies, and tourism. Capitalizing on Lebanon‘s diversity in foodstuffs from production to culinary preparation could effect in a richer lifestyle on all levels and increase the country’s fundamental attractiveness. “It is an essential for giving us a tourism base that distinguishes us from countries around us. Sun bathing and shopping are limited and not thought nor culture enhancing,” he said. “When it is well sorted out, agriculture will provide jobs and opportunities, plus make the country richer and a more interesting place to go and look at.” A rich, successful and diverse agricultural setting thus would create a stage for highly developed tourism as well as establish the quality of life environment able to entice foreign companies to locate their regional offices here.
Agriculture could also fill a very direct function in providing parts of Lebanon with tourism revenue, added Darwish. Holidays on the farm are a fixture of tourism culture in many countries, and cultivating this segment in Lebanon could be lucrative. According to an AUB research study in two communities with agri-tourism potential, tourists would be willing to spend about $35 per day on an agricultural vacation with an arrangement of leisure options ranging from recreational fruit picking (for the guest’s own consumption or, in the case of grapes, for wine production) to hiking and eco excursions. Finally, protecting agriculture could translate into preserving the national social fabric and demographic balance between rural and urban populations, suggested Darwish. Whereas a lesser role of agriculture increases the migration pressure on cities and leads to marginalization of rural populations, the state could save considerable amounts by supporting agriculturalists, he said. “The government will be much better off in subsidizing farmers in any form rather than letting them migrate to the cities.”