As Lebanon weathers through an economic crisis and COVID-19 outbreak, food insecurity has become a major concern across media headlines and in society. More stories are surfacing on how many families can no longer afford to meet their food needs, raising questions on the future of Lebanon’s fragile food sector.
What is food security, and what does it mean for a country to be food insecure? For the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian agency concerned with food security and food assistance, these questions are essential in today’s Lebanon. Access to food is a basic need and a basic right, with serious and far-reaching human and economic consequences when under threat, especially since the poorest and most vulnerable groups in society are usually those first and most affected.
At the 1996 World Food Summit, the United Nations’ Committee on World Food Security defined food security as people having at all times “physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their food preference and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.” It is not just food availability that determines the food security status of a certain country, group, or person, but also the stable and constant access to food, and how this food is used. How do these definitions apply to Lebanon in the present circumstances?
Food availability derives from domestic production or from imports, with Lebanon relying heavily on the latter as a net food importer. The recent scarcity of US dollars and capital control measures have put food availability at risk as food importers have been facing increasing obstacles to make payments on the international market.
Between 2015 and 2019, Lebanon imported about three million tons of food products each year to meet the demand on the domestic market. Less than 20 percent of the consumption needs of cereals was covered by local production.
Food availability on the domestic market, however, does not guarantee that consumers will be able to afford and to access, in sufficient quantity, the various and adequate food products necessary for a healthy diet. Even prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and the resulting lockdown of economic activity, WFP has been concerned that access to food was threatened by the steady inflation in food prices that commenced in the latter months of 2019 and the economic recession causing large-scale job losses and salary reductions.
Between September 2019 and March 2020, WFP research recorded an increase of 40.1 percent in the price of the basket of eight basic food commodities (rice, bulgur, pasta, white beans, sugar, sunflower oil, salt, and canned meat) which serves to determine the cash transfer value for food assistance programmes benefitting vulnerable Lebanese and Syrian refugee families. This food basket is known as the Survival Minimum Expenditure Basket (SMEB), as it is required, in sufficient quantities, to cover an individual’s minimum survival food needs for a month. The inflation observed for the SMEB can be compared to the inflation reported by Lebanon’s Consumer Price Index (CPI), derived from a much larger basket of food and non-alcoholic beverage products, which stood 18.4 percent for the period September 2019 – January 2020.
This high inflation of food prices, unprecedented in Lebanon in the last ten years, is strongly correlated to the unofficial devaluation of the Lebanese lira against the US dollar, which made food imports more expensive and also more difficult to get due to capital control measures. Food price inflation combined with inflation affecting non-food products and services, and with loss of income resulting from rising unemployment and salary cuts, has undoubtedly and drastically reduced Lebanese households’ ability to afford adequate and sufficient food, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable.
Since 2014, WFP and its partners, including international donors and Lebanon’s Ministry of Social Affairs (MoSA), had already been reaching out to almost 150,000 Lebanese and Syrian refugee families (close to one million individuals) with cash-based food assistance to cover their basic needs (SMEB). Estimates, however, indicate that almost twice as many additional households are currently unable to meet their minimum food needs and would require assistance until economic recovery enables them to afford the cost involved.
The face of vulnerability
The economic crisis has changed the face of poverty and vulnerability in Lebanon—it has made it significantly more acute.
Even prior to the current economic and COVID-19 crises, poverty levels were high in Lebanon, hovering just above 30 percent according to the World Bank. Based on negative GDP per capita growth projections for 2020, the World Bank estimates poverty prevalence will rise to 45 percent in 2020, up from 37 percent in 2019. Likewise, extreme poverty (also known as food poverty) is expected to affect 22 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2019. According to these estimates, Lebanon could count as many as 335,000 poor Lebanese households in 2020 (out of 4 million Lebanese residents), including 163,000 households (close to one million individuals) under the food poverty line.
Significantly, Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education reported last January that 40,000 students previously schooled in the private education system had enrolled in public schools, as their families were no longer able to afford tuition fees. This represented a 15 percent increase in students enrolled in the public education system, at a time when the government’s fiscal capacity is severely challenged. This example is emblematic of a sudden and rapid impoverishment affecting even the middle class, while the impact on the poorer strata of society is undoubtedly much more severe.
Syrian and other refugees as well as migrant workers residing in Lebanon have also been seriously affected by the economic downturn. WFP estimates that between 2019 and 2020, the proportion of Syrian refugee households unable to meet their minimal survival needs, including food, has increased from 55 percent to 83 percent (WFP estimates that Lebanon is host to 1.2 million Syrians). Only half of these extremely vulnerable families are currently receiving basic assistance.
The need for change
This sudden and significant rise in poverty and food insecurity comes at a very critical time and in a very challenging context in Lebanon, where targeted social safety nets are the lowest in the Middle East and North Africa region (at less than one percent of GDP), and when public debt and fiscal challenges severely undermine the government’s capacity to mitigate the impact of the crisis, even on the poorest and most vulnerable.
The government and partners, including WFP and international donors, are acutely aware of the situation and are urgently seeking to protect the most vulnerable in the short term, while looking at sustainable solutions to improve social safety nets as well as economic and fiscal policies impacting poverty and food security in the medium and long term.
The MoSA’s National Solidarity Programme launched in early April to assist 200,000 vulnerable households through cash-based transfers puts food security at the center of its objectives. Likewise, reform and expansion of the National Poverty Targeting Programme (NPTP), which could benefit as many as 150,000 extreme poor Lebanese households as an emergency social safety net, are being actively discussed. The main feature of the current NPTP, supported by WFP, is to ensure that food needs of the poorest Lebanese families are covered through a food “e-card” that can be used as a means of payment at food retailers. WFP also commends and supports initiatives from civil society and non-governmental organizations to address urgent food needs across Lebanon.
Availability and access to food at affordable prices have emerged as major issues in Lebanon in recent months. As they are closely associated to basic human and social rights, if not to social justice, and as their contribution to health and economic indicators is highly critical, they deserve priority attention.
The measures and programmes discussed above are only part of what is needed to address urgent needs and to build efficient social safety nets to protect food security. Food security in Lebanon, sustainable and affordable to all, will require all actors to engage in a wider range of reflections and reforms, touching on domestic food production and transformation, agricultural policy, food value-chains and markets, terms of trade issues, and the environment. In this sense, food security as a central social and economic determinant should also be seen as a critical starting point and catalyst for reform in general.
Lebanon is facing a period of many unknowns, yet in the current state of emergency at national and global levels the provision of enough food at affordable prices for all Lebanon’s residents, including refugees and migrant workers, must be secured. Failing this, the country’s food security situation will rapidly deteriorate, both in terms of food availability and access to food.
Diminishing food imports will lead to increasing food scarcity, while the agricultural sector is also bound to suffer from the higher prices of imported inputs such as seeds and fertilizers. As for access, if food prices continue to increase and if families continue to lose their income, there is a high risk that residents will no longer be able to afford their daily meals.
This highlights the need to undertake not only appropriate and urgently needed fiscal and structural reforms, but also to address the immediate food and essential needs of the most vulnerable households. Lebanon should also explore cost-effective methods to increase its domestic food production, which would decrease its reliance on food imports and increase job opportunities. It would also relieve the pressure on Lebanon’s scarce foreign currency reserves, and ultimately reinforce them through increasing exports from the food sector.
Lebanon’s food sector must reach stability when it comes to access and availability. This would considerably reduce the risks and consequences of sudden economic or health shocks such as the ones Lebanon and the rest of the world are facing now with the coronavirus pandemic.