The need for security is a constant refrain among Lebanese politicians and journalists, who tend to intone that it has something to do with ministers meeting their maker on a Sunday drive to the mountains, or with the ongoing drama with the country’s southern neighbor. But there is another danger that goes beyond bombs and blasts which policy makers have both ignored and neglected: food security.
Without going into elements of nutritional content and purchasing power dynamics in depth, food security is commonly accepted to require both availability and access to food. Food sovereignty, on the other hand, focuses on the “right” of people in their respective countries to define the systems that feed them rather than having them subject to international market pressures.
The surging price of wheat, and the government’s costly measures to dull the effects provide the most recent reminder of Lebanon’s vulnerability. Last year, Russia imposed an export ban on wheat, the Ukraine limited exports and erratic weather saw other major world producers’ harvests fall; hoarding ensued, and the global price of wheat skyrocketed. Such shocks had an immediate effect on a country as import-dependent as Lebanon and policy action had to be taken. Wheat — which has always been subsidized to support farm production, and at the mill level when necessary to maintain the price of bread — was purchased and stored, and mills began to receive wheat from the local grain board at subsidized rates for the baking of bread. And again, during the first quarter of this year, the government spent $18.5 million to purchase 48,532 metric tons (MT) of imported wheat, which was resold to mills at a subsidized price in order to maintain the price of Arabic bread at $1 per kilogram.
The drastic measures following global fluctuations in wheat prices is indicative of Lebanon’s larger problem: The country’s precariously lopsided agricultural import to export ratio. For example, Lebanon produces around 100,000 MT of wheat a year and imports 700,000 MT, according to Abdolreza Abbassian, senior economist at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“We are already food insecure because we don’t have any more farmers,” says Ali Darwiche, secretary general of Green Line, a Lebanese association that promotes sustainable development. Over the years, he says, Lebanese farmers have been forced to abandon their plots due mainly to the fact that their products have to compete with imports that are cheaper to produce elsewhere and enter Lebanon without import tariffs.
In any given year, more than 80 percent of Lebanon’s food supply is made up of imports, according to the agriculture ministry. This puts the country at the mercy of international commodity prices and frames the issue of food security as one predicated on a lack of food sovereignty.
The global financial firm Nomura classified Lebanon as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to a crisis due to rising food prices, on the basis of gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, food as a percentage of household consumption and net food exports as a percentage of GDP.
According to the latest official government figures, the rise in the consumer price index of food and non-alcoholic beverages was 7.6percent year-on-year in June 2011, reflecting a continuous upward climb since the statistics were first recorded in December 2007.
Making matters worse in Lebanon is the fact that when prices go up there is no guarantee that they will come down again, even when global prices drop, due to the asymmetric price transmission within Lebanese markets —meaning, prices stay high because the few who control the market are happier with high margins and have little incentive for competitive pricing.
According to a UN study on economic competition commissioned by the Ministry of Economy and Trade in 2003, which the ministry now says it “does not endorse or validate,” half the products sold in the Lebanese market come from sectors where there is an oligopoly in place, where over 40 percent of the market is owned by four companies or less. According to the document, 72percent of farms in the country are controlled by 6 percent of farmers. The same goes for other products related to food production, like mineral water, pesticides, fuel and so on.
“In something like the tomato market, it is not an oligopoly; the farmers are diverse, but the wholesalers are concentrated and fermented. You’re kind of creating sub economies,” says Jad Chaaban, acting president of the Lebanese Economics Association and a specialist in the economics of food. “It’s a cartel that is spread up across interest groups and professions. We need a more integrated, better-regulated market, and a tackling of oligopolies, because it will increase local sales and decrease imports.”
An unbalanced hunger
Further contributing to Lebanon’s food insecurity are its drastic disparities in wealth. The UN estimates that 28 percent of the Lebanese population lives under the upper poverty line of $4 per person per day, and there is a “wild gap between rich and poor,” says the FAO’s Abbassian.
“From the data we’ve been collecting it seems that… there are pockets of poverty and food insecurity in certain areas in the country,” says Hala Ghattas, assistant professor of community nutrition at the American University of Beirut.
The level of inequality is so wide that the poorest 20percent of the population accounts for 7 percent of all consumption, while the top 20 percent accounts for over 43 percent. “No matter what food prices are, some people will always be able to access food and some will keep falling below a certain threshold; these are the more food insecure,” says Ghattas.
Already consumption patterns have been affected. “We’ve already seen that people were unable to buy meat,” says Chaaban, who explained that the price increase on meats is a reflection of other increases in the components of animal feed. Globally, meat has shot up by 19.9 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the latest FAO figures.
“When the prices are so high, some people reduce substantially their consumption so that it creates health problems,” says Chaaban, who claims that research is beginning to show that the poorest people in Lebanon are starting to show signs of micronutrient deficiencies.
Overall, however, Lebanon does better on nutritional food security indicators than it does on economic ones. The International Food Policy Research Institute, an international food research organization, puts undernourishment at just 2 percent (between 2003 and 2005), well below the global average of 21.3 percent. And another major indicator used to measure food security, the Global Hunger Index (the average of the percentage of general undernourishment, children under five who are underweight, and mortality rates under five years old) fell from 5 percent just after the civil war to 3.5 percent in 2005 and now remains under 5 percent.
Regardless, Lebanon’s lack of agricultural production and large wealth inequities make food security a critical issue in need of governmental attention. However, many of the reforms needed will take time, a continuity of policy and a good deal of money. Essentially, to increase food security, local production will have to increase.
Potential for production
In theory at least, Lebanon has a good deal of potential compared to others in the region.
For starters, if Lebanon actually wanted to employ much of the arable land it has available it could do so rather easily. According to the“ optimistic view” of the UN, the amount of potential arable land in the country is 269,000 hectares, on top of the 306,000 already being used, or 88 percent more potential agricultural land, as compared to a country like Egypt with just3 percent of usable farmland yet to be cultivated.
However, even if there was the will to employ this land for agriculture, arable land does not necessarily translate into useful and productive crops. “The main factor for food security is the land use planning and you need to make sure that not every piece of land is a piece of real estate,” says Green Line’s Darwiche. “For us the value of a piece of land is in its real estate, not in what it can produce. Prices should go up; it is not fair when real estate goes up by this much, while fruit prices stay low.”
Up until today there is no master plan for land use in the country, with much of the profitable area along the coast already built up, both legally and illegally. Of course any master plan would need political consensus, which would not be an easy thing to navigate in the morass of Lebanese land politics, where each sect has its enclave, and the notion of a national project as one state has been fleeting.
And beyond the issue of land allocation, farmers need incentives to produce in Lebanon. “The government should protect the farmer; the ministries should make sure they get irrigation, electricity and labor,[but] the main problem is the open market economy that doesn’t protect food security. In Lebanon, we don’t have the qualifications to be food secure,”Darwiche says. Accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has been pushed for since 1999 by the Ministry of Economy and Trade, certainly would not help producers who are already facing prohibitive competition from importers cashing in on Lebanon’s lax customs duties. “Where the level of domestic protection is high, as in the Syrian Arab Republic, trade liberalization is likely to reduce domestic agricultural prices, unlike in countries where domestic protection is lower, such as in Egypt, Jordan or Lebanon,” reads a recent UN report on food security in the Middle East.
Along with incentivizing and allocating new agricultural land, there should be a push to make existing food production more effective. At present, Lebanon’s cereal yield stands at 2,619 kilograms per hectare(kg/ha), which is just above the regional, but below the global, average. Countries with more sophisticated irrigation systems like Egypt register 7,589kg/ha.
“To improve yields you need to have bigger lots to justify mechanization and irrigation and use of pesticides within reasonable limits,” says President of Dora Flour Mills and Chair of the Agrifood Traders Syndicate, Arslan Sinno. “You have limited land resources so how can you seek to be self-sufficient when there are alternatives [such as imports]?” According to Sinno, an increase in productivity would take at least 20 years, during which Lebanon should expect price volatility. “Our lots are small and the production is small… and there are no silos or central collection centers. There is no room to separate the types of wheat and clean them, and if you don’t clean them you cannot export them,” he says.
At the current rate, Lebanon is heading into a period of increased food insecurity. Indeed, according to global food charity Oxfam, food prices are set to double by 2030. Right now only the Ministry of Agriculture has put forward a strategy, based on eight axes that include updating laws, reforming the ministry, improving infrastructure and developing microcredit, though as yet nothing concrete in terms of time or costs has been decided. But Lebanon cannot bide its time on such an important and increasingly relevant issue. The land is there; the policy must follow. “We need a real government,” says Darwiche. “Then when we have net balance in food imports and exports equal to zero, we can consider that we have food security.”