Home Economics & PolicyAnalysis Harvesting Reforms: Lebanon’s Food Security and Sovereignty

Harvesting Reforms: Lebanon’s Food Security and Sovereignty

by Carol Farah

Food security is a prerequisite for any people’s sovereignty. The need for food’s physical and mental sustenance affects every human being with an existential might. It consequently ranks in import perhaps second only after the need for a planetary home with breathable air and stable gravity. This foundational necessity, however, has only at the end of the 20th century been accentuated into a universal imperative for the world’s societies. 

The global age’s second gathering dedicated to this imperative, the 1996 World Food Summit produced pledges by 185 nations that they would strive to eradicate hunger. In their Rome Declaration on World Food Security, those nations’ authorized representatives explicitly affirmed “the right of everyone to have access to safe and nutritious food, consistent with the right to adequate food and the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger”.

Even though the hunger eradication promises of nations have remained as dubitable in the intervening 27 years as at time of their adoption, recognition of the importance of satisfying the right to food security has only increased for the legions of civil society activists and a host of global institutions alike. Thus, an incessant stream of projections and warnings over acute food insecurities in different parts of the world has been sharply juxtaposed with the unwavering assurance that all people, at all times, are supposed to have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. 

Just one example of these dire forecasts is the most recent (September 2023) food security update by the World Bank with its warning that as many as 670 million people will confront hunger by the year 2030 due to factors that include climate change, a global water crisis, and loss of biodiversity. As always with such catastrophic predictions that might prompt cynical or hysterical responses, solutions arise from asking—at the national or local level: Who is most affected? Why? What might be done about it? 

Surveying a fertile but economically exhausted land 

In the context of Lebanon, a small yet geographically varied Mediterranean country historically renowned for its arable land and water resources, improving food security is inextricably linked to achieving greater food sovereignty, the latter of which is defined by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESWA) as the right of people to their own culturally appropriate and sustainable food policies and management systems for natural resources. Improving both food security and food sovereignty will require an uphill climb as the nation faces protracted economic challenges, an on-going refugee crisis, and new regional conflicts currently causing major disruptions and damage or overall halts to agricultural endeavors in much of south Lebanon and urging questions of national sovereignty.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC)—a “multi-partner initiative” of UN institutions, governments, and other actors dedicated to analysis and decision making on food security —conducted two successive analyses in Lebanon in 2022 and 23. The second IPC Acute Food Insecurity Analysis estimated in 2023 that, induced by the country’s economic meltdown, food insecurity in Lebanon has reached crisis level, known as IPC Phase 3 or above, for 21 percent of Lebanese residents, 30 percent of Syrian refugees, and around 30 to 35 percent of Palestinian refugees, including those who have lived here for generations, as well as Palestinian refugees from Syria. 

According to the IPC statement, these numbers in great part reflect the last five years of compounded hardships that Lebanese can now recite off hand: the economic crisis that began in 2019, the exacerbating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the devastating port explosion of August 2020 that, in addition to taking over 200 lives and demolishing infrastructure, also destroyed Lebanon’s main grain silos which took the brunt of the explosion’s impact. 

In anticipation of continued deterioration in secure access to food in the country, the IPC projects for the coming summer that “between April and September 2024, about 1.14 million people are expected to face high levels of food insecurity and are likely to be in IPC Phase 3 or above.” Of the five phases in the IPC nomenclature, phase three to five are designated as “critical”, “emergency”, and “famine”, with the respective values for Lebanon residents in the October 2023 to end of March being 18 percent, one percent, and zero percent.   

One impact of the economic crisis on Lebanon’s food security is the inability of the local market to generate hard-currency income for producers has prompted both farmers and agro-industrialists to pivot towards export markets. Still, Executive found that “for every dollar earned from export markets, over four dollars are spent on import of foodstuffs and agricultural inputs.” In meeting the demands of international markets—where quality, reliability, branding, and regulation are paramount—producers have shifted their focus away from the local market. The consequence is a discernible gap in Lebanon, with high-quality produce earmarked for export, leaving domestically consumed products of lower quality. 

During 2022 and 2023, Executive spoke with food and agriculture stakeholders from around the country about issues of agriculture, food security, and food sovereignty to gain insights on the specific obstacles the country faces on these fronts. 

Agriculture in Lebanon needs a makeover

Many stakeholders in the agricultural sector identified the absence of a unified vision for growth both legislatively at the public policy level as well as amongst producers, wholesalers and importers. Rima Franjieh from the Lebanese Private Sector Network compared the absence to a company with no vision statement. Legislation concerning agriculture is outdated with Mounir Bissat of the Syndicate of Food Industrialists citing the food safety law that not only took 18 years to ratify but underwent fundamental changes that weakened the original draft version. 

In the realm of education, the sector grapples with a widening gap between training programs and the evolving needs of the industry. The disconnect between academia and practical application leaves organizations and NGOs struggling to secure expertise aligned with the sector’s demands. Simultaneously, societal perceptions and stigmas surrounding farm work may discourage interest in agriculture as a viable career choice. During a 2023 roundtable hosted by Executive, Dr. Nuhad Dahger from the American University of Beirut’s agricultural department noted that, for example, there are few PhDs in horticulture even though Lebanon is a horticulture environment. Maha Nehme from the Lebanese Reforestation Initiative stated that there is only one forestry-related masters course in Lebanon. 

The informality of agricultural labor, coupled with a lack of legislative support for agricultural rights, dissuades youth engagement, highlighting a need for a comprehensive rebranding effort to reshape these ingrained stereotypes. Adding to the complexity is the enduring legacy of the regional conflict of 1948 and its aftermath which has given rise to a pattern of identity-based hiring practices, particularly evident in the employment of lower-paid, non-Lebanese workers. Addressing these historical dynamics—the challenges of which are being revived in new and horrifying ways since October of 2023—through equitable labor relations is imperative for crafting equitable long-term strategies to revitalize Lebanon’s agricultural sector.

Another glaring issue is a lack of data from the understaffed Ministry of Water and Energy (MoWE) on, for example, rainfall or groundwater levels make it difficult for farmers to know what to plant and when. 

Water, land and stewardship

Lebanon’s water resources are comparatively high within the region, and include surface water, ground water and spring water. Still, many households do not receive public tap water and rely solely on water trucks to fill their cisterns. In 2023, transportation costs increased due to the continued escalation of fuel prices hampering water distribution efforts.  Additionally, underdeveloped irrigation networks and the use of polluted water underscores Executive’s Economic Roadmap measure to create a Water Master Plan building off the 2010 National Water Sector Strategy. 

For anyone seeking further evidence of poor water management, a roadside glance at a Lebanese dam would likely show a structure still under construction or unfilled even during the heaviest months of rainfall as most of the nation’s 12 are not operational. Though the dams offer benefits including hydropower generation, improved irrigation and water supply for domestic use, poor planning has caused inefficiency where water is lost to leaks or Lebanon’s karst terrain, severe damage to local environments, and blocked rivers. 

Though systemic and management challenges are on display, equally present are examples of indominable Lebanese entrepreneurship and creativity amongst stakeholders in the agro-food industry. Organic farmers and farming operators in Lebanon are optimizing water use and rainwater collection and combatting soil degradation from overuse of chemicals and genetically modified seeds by employing various planting techniques to keep the soil rich.  The growing shift to renewable energy in the agriculture sector has been notable in 2023 as farmers seek to reduce fuel costs. Support for collaboration and unification here is paramount, as Pierre Khoury from the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation (LCEC) notes that RE is a huge job-creation opportunity. Although farming and agricultural cooperatives have market-savvy expertise and a decades-long presence in Lebanon, many are dysfunctional and lack collective bargaining power. Marie-Louise Hayek from the Food and Agriculture Organization recommends aggregating small farms, while Rami Lakkis of the NGO LOST says that businesses need aggregating agents to support collaboration. 

Towards a unified national scheme

Lebanon’s food sector needs a committed focus on essential legal reforms and collaborative efforts with private enterprises, civil society, and government entities. The country’s small size and the variance in political, ethnical, religious, and socio-economic backgrounds of agro-food stakeholders across the value chain present advantages due to, for example, the deep and close ties within communities. These same benefits often become hurdles to networking attempts and the formation of a unified strategy for food security. Therefore, prioritizing active engagement and coordination while maintaining equidistance to all local stakeholders from the private and public sector, civil society, religious institutions, and international organizations as well as traditional familial stakeholders can build cohesion. 

The vested interest of sects in Lebanon in protecting their interests and political positions have created a problem of lack of data across all sectors. Agricultural data is crucial for increasing productivity, mitigating food loss, and, most importantly, improving social equity. Missing information from the public sector can be supplied by international organizations, civil society and private sector stakeholders, although this creates challenges to aggregating objective figures. Ultimately, however, Executive recommends an “improved data and information framework with non-politicized and non-ideologized, pragmatic and transparent data acquisition, analysis, and delivery are the potential reduction of food loss because of producers’ improved visibility into demand and supply beyond the ultra-short-term view afforded by market data at the start of the planting and breeding seasons.”

Efforts to strengthen the water-energy-soil nexus for food security involve strategic collaborations and the deployment of solar photovoltaic (PV) technology. Partnering with organizations like the LCEC and the Ministry of Environment, in conjunction with engaging the private sector, can play a vital role in reducing energy costs for agricultural producers. The continued integration of properly installed solar PV systems reduces electricity expenses and presents an opportunity to power irrigation pumps, contributing to a more sustainable water-energy-food (WEF) nexus. It is crucial, however, to carefully monitor and coordinate these initiatives, acknowledging potential risks and the temporary nature of job creation associated with solar PV projects. On this front, Executive recommends that “the leverage points along the technical innovation and WEF vector should be actively sequenced, monitored, and pragmatically adjusted rather than programmatic in their approach.” Simultaneously, a greater emphasis on heritage preservation is needed to safeguard traditional agricultural practices, preserve cultural identity, and ensure the long-term sustainability of Lebanon’s food sources. 

Despite Lebanon’s fertile (if deteriorating) soil and sufficient (if polluted) water resources, the agricultural sector in Lebanon still grapples with the absence of national origin schemes and robust quality supervision for its diverse products. Lebanon’s pursuit of food security and sovereignty is not just a local concern but also contributes to regional stability.

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Carol Farah

Intern in business journalism

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