It is bewildering to watch international humanitarian organizations donate food packages to Lebanon – the Middle East’s most fertile lands. One can only wonder: What prohibits the Lebanese from investing in the richness of the land under their feet and enjoying the abundance it can produce?
I can still remember how amazed I was watching the harvest in Marjeyoun’s fields as a child when visiting my grandparents in the summer. These valleys used to feed more than thirty-five villages located around them, and more. Today, these same valleys are left uncultivated and neglected. Worse, the whole ecosystem that used to exist no longer exists; the cultivators, the harvesters, the flour mills, the olive presses, the colorful wholesale market and of course, the entrepreneurs who introduced innovative techniques to increase and improve the crop.
Since Lebanon’s independence our top-heavy and rentier minded government system has favored the capital, as well as the hospitality, tourism and services sector over the primary industry. With agriculture having been denied attention over three successive generations, the rural to urban migration boosted the services sector and increased jobs in the city, but precious agricultural knowledge was lost. Almost nobody cared, however, because the urban demand for cheap food was filled with produce from neighboring Syria and imports from more distant lands – a structure that over time contributed to the negative balance of trade and compounded in an economic loss for Lebanon.
But even this imbalance was not something that the state cared enough about. Negligence in meeting international export standards has been exacerbated by the unhindered smuggling of drugs under cover of agricultural produce. This loss of elementary protection against abuse got a telling monetary value attached to it when Saudi Arabia banned the import of Lebanese agriculture products to its market in spring last year. The Lebanese food industry suffered an estimated $370 million market loss.
Many argue that the crisis triggered the revival of the sector. This renewed interest in the land can be considered as an awakening; one that is fueled by private initiative, promises safety and security, but threatened by greed and malpractice.
On the pages of this issue, we take a deep dive into the good, the bad, and the vast spectrum of opportunity that could become of our home-grown reborn sector with the hope that one day we will maybe reach food safety and security.