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Black gold

Transforming waste into food security

by Wael Yammine

Although it is a productive sector, agriculture in Lebanon relies heavily on imports of primary resources and materials. Most commercial agricultural production requires imported basic materials such as seeds, potting mixes, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, many of which are not produced locally or in sufficient quantities. The devaluation of the Lebanese pound poses a serious challenge to both the flow of these imports and the purchase of fuel to power the machinery necessary to manage large fields. The increased costs of agricultural production are raising the cost of produce and threatening food security.

According to a recent paper authored by Kanj Hamade, assistant professor of agricultural economics and rural development at the Lebanese University, and published by Carnegie Middle East Center, sales of agricultural inputs and services contracted by 40 percent on average in 2020. In response to the economic crisis, farmers have been increasingly adopting cost-reduction strategies involving mainly reducing the use of fertilizers and other inputs, relying on local seeds and nurseries, and overall decreasing agricultural activities and spaces.

 In response, growers are being forced to adapt by resorting to local alternatives or switching from conventional systems to new and more sustainable ways of producing food. The most logical, and most exciting place to start this is the soil itself and what makes it fertile. One key agricultural component in this shift to self-reliance remains undersupplied and undervalued: a trusted local supply of good quality compost, the best type of organic fertilizer.

Deadly economics

Some technical talk is necessary to emphasize the importance of fertilizers here, but we’ll try to keep it simple. Fertilizers are either chemical-based (synthesized in labs) or organic-based, i.e. made from organic materials only, although not necessarily carrying an organic certification. Organic fertilizers usually consist of pure raw or cured manure, or naturally decomposed agricultural byproducts and food waste (compost), or mixes of both.

 Basically, conventional growers who rely on chemical fertilizers usually focus on single cash crops such as tobacco or tomatoes. Repeating the growth cycle of these uniform crops eventually drains the soil of nutrients, hence the need for imported fertilizers to maintain or increase yield. Such fertilizers contain Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium (NPK) in the form of salts that increase soil salinity.

 Common chemical fertilizers contain compounds that are technically safe to use but can create devastating reactions if not stored properly. One of these compounds is the infamous ammonium nitrate that caused the August 4 Beirut Port explosion. This compound had previously caused similar explosions in other countries, and had even been used in terrorist acts, leading many countries to ban it or ban the sale of fertilizers containing it in high concentrations.

 Also, ensuring that only the desired crops grow and benefit from fertilizers requires eliminating the competition from weeds, which requires more imported chemicals in the form of herbicides. These herbicides do more than eliminate unwanted growth, they also contribute to barren soils by depopulating microbial life in soils. The crops that grow on such impoverished plots face a higher risk of disease, and their uniformity and concentration attracts pests that thrive on them. As a result, they require more inputs in the form of more water or more fertilizers, as well as additional chemical inputs through the use of imported pesticides. And with the next crop, the cycle is repeated and intensified.

 This sadly literal self-sabotage brings to mind a fitting quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt often used among practitioners of chemical-free agriculture: “The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

 

In 2020, imports of fertilizers dropped to $27 million, half their value from previous years. While importers and producers of chemical products may still turn profits, growers’ pains endure and worsen; even prior to the economic crisis, they complained about smaller yields year-on-year and the spread of diseases, despite using the same quantities of inputs, or sometimes increasing them. When everything fails, these growers go back to the chorus of blaming climate change or the “original infertility” of the land.

Transitioning to organic solutions

A chemical-free agricultural production carries with it a number of advantages in terms of budget, quality, profitability, and more importantly, sustainability.

 From a fertilizer standpoint only, there are important savings to be made from establishing local production facilities. A search for quotations among local suppliers of fertilizers reveals telling figures. The price of a 25 kg bag of imported chemical fertilizer is $17. This type of fertilizer requires lab equipment and a supply of raw materials not available locally. The price of a same-quantity bag of organic fertilizer comes out at $9 or $10 on the cheaper side (imported from Belgium and The Netherlands, respectively) and $14 on the higher side (imported from Turkey). By comparison, a similar bag of locally-made compost ranges between $3.5 for lower-grade products and $8.75 for high-end ones. The cost-benefit ratio is crystal clear.

Most importantly, chemical fertilizers contribute to the degradation of soils, something many conventional growers are still unaware of or unwilling to do anything about, and this raises the bill of additional inputs required.

 

Organic fertilizers, on the other hand, play a huge role in contributing to food security through the preservation of soil health and fertility, thereby ensuring stable yields and sustainable agricultural production. By that measure, good quality compost is best type of organic fertilizer. Compost is the result of aerobic decomposition by microbes of different types of organic material (food scraps, tree leaves, manure, seeds, etc.). A good quality compost is supposed to feed the soil not the plants, meaning it inoculates the depleted or struggling soil with the needed micro-organisms which in turn will harvest the essential nutrients from underground and offer them to the plants. The plants in return give back sugar to the microorganisms, establishing a synergistic relationship that helps them become more resilient. In addition to bringing back life to degraded soils, compost helps build soil structure, retain moisture, and prevent erosion.  It can also serve as an alternative disease-free potting medium for nurseries, replacing the imported peat moss that depletes wetlands in many parts of Europe (and also costs a bundle for local importers).

 Of the different compost production systems, thermal composting is the most widespread worldwide. Without getting too technical, this process combines regular aeration and moisture control to heat careful proportions of materials to above 55° C over a period of 10-15 days, eliminating most pathogens and weed seeds. This curing process makes the resulting compost ideally suited for use as a potting mix for plant nurseries or as a soil amendment.

Other systems necessitate more time and deliver end-products with different properties intended for different applications. Static composting, for example, takes up to six months and requires different conditions under which insects and microorganisms slowly decompose matter into “humus” mainly intended for environmental applications. Cold composting relies on the action of certain insects only to produce a rich soil-amending compost (vermicompost) that is, however, unsuitable as a potting mix. This process is more sensitive and requires more efforts to guarantee ideal conditions, making it effort-intensive.

Wasting waste

Successive destructive policies since the 90’s have been biased in favor of importers of chemical fertilizers. As a result, many large-scale growers and investors are convinced that feeding the population and reclaiming food security on a national level are impossible without chemical fertilizers. Sadly, many growers are not fully aware of, or do not care about the damage that chemical fertilizers cause.

 With the onset of the crisis, however, reliance on chemical fertilizers is diminishing. Small-scale farmers especially are turning towards animal manure as an organic fertilizer after it had been gradually phased out by the overabundance of chemical fertilizers and their marketing as “odor-free.”

 On the other hand, a large number of growers are unaware of the importance and benefits of using compost as an organic fertilizer. This is partly because compost has been primarily associated with solutions to the waste crisis. Over the past few years, specifically after the waste crisis hit critical levels in 2015, several local entrepreneurs and non-governmental NGOs have begun focusing on developing compost value chains (collection, sorting, production) in Lebanon as a means to divert household organic waste from landfills, bearing in mind that this constitutes over 50 percent of total municipal solid waste in Lebanon, according to the German development agency GIZ. For example, Green Site Composting, located near the Beirut slaughterhouse, uses static composting, whereas Cedar Environmental applies enzymes to organic waste to speed up its decomposition. Even the former waste management company Sukleen used to operate a composting facility at its Medawar headquarters, although it was reluctant to share details about its operation.

 These initiatives do not address the agriculture sector’s needs; they are primarily environmental and focus on waste reduction, even if before 2015 less than 10 percent of total organic waste was composted. Due to the absence of adequate regulations, the compost produced may contain different contaminants, from weed seeds to pathogens and heavy metals. Some of it may be packed active and dried, which makes it seemingly odorless, but once it is exposed to moisture, it releases bad odors. Or it may be stored too long or in too dry conditions, rendering it sterile. It is not surprising then that its desirability in the agriculture sector is low, and it often ends up dumped erratically or distributed for free to growers insufficiently aware of its poor quality. For this reason, many growers find it easier to buy manure instead, since it is cheaper, more readily available, and offers the same results: bad odors and a high risk of pathogens.

Rethinking agriculture

This “waste” of what should otherwise constitute a boon to agriculture can easily be prevented. First, there is an urgent need for local regulation of compost production processes, especially in terms of quality control. Compost standards and guidelines exist in the US and EU countries and are either enforced by laws or through regulatory bodies. Lebanon’s National Agriculture Strategy (NAS) 2020-2025, drafted in June 2020 by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), actually calls for establishing a regulatory framework for the sector notably to encourage the use of renewable energy in the sector to mitigate the effects of climate change, including the production of compost from animal farms and agricultural products. This step is to be complemented by more effective awareness and communication campaigns on responsible food consumption.

 When it comes to implementing this strategy, however, it is a different matter. This will require the willingness of international donors, which is conditional upon long-term and structural reforms. Some small-scale Lebanese farmers have already benefited from initiatives under the NAS, namely through the $10 million reallocated by the World Bank in May 2021 to support them with agricultural inputs and animal feed, and through an inputs voucher scheme implemented by the International Labor Organization and FAO in September and funded by the Netherlands.

 Major reforms in the agricultural sector entail formalizing farming and animal husbandry–related businesses, as well as agricultural labor, in order to protect the rights of actors involved. Amending land tenure and heritage laws would also enforce clear and fair land-use regulations, including sustainable land management practices. Also, facilitating the creation of cooperatives and improving their independence and capacity to grow would favor the growth of socially enterprises and solidary businesses in the sector.

Composting from grass roots

On a more pragmatic note, a key element of successful reforms and policies is the availability and transmission of the necessary skills and knowledge in agriculture, specifically in composting which is still not given enough attention. The SOILS Permaculture Association – Lebanon, has focused on composting since the beginning of the crisis in Lebanon. Educating and training growers on shifting away from chemicals to rely on more natural inputs proved to be incomplete when considering the difficulty of sourcing good quality compost locally. The community-based association then began integrating composting in all its agro-ecology training programs.

 In the summer of 2021, the association partnered with the French organization Terre et Humanisme to support two trainees in starting up small-scale pilot composting units in the regions of Jezzine and Tyr, with the aim of creating and marketing a trusted local product for the agriculture sector. The trainees showed interest in the project as a way of diversifying their agricultural operations and creating a new and sustainable source of income that does not rely on imports. They were provided with the necessary knowledge, basic equipment, and mentoring in all steps of the process. Organic materials were sourced from within the trainees’ home villages or neighboring areas, encouraging villagers to drop off or “donate” their agricultural waste to the compost producers rather than burning it. After the end-product is tested in demonstration plots, the compost will be sold at a competitive rate to growers.

 As the pilot phase of the project nears its end, it is clear that education and dedication are the key requirements to its success, together with a healthy dose of passion. The initial investment can be as low as $500 (covering equipment and material costs, as well as land fees) and can produce around 4-7 tons of compost every two months. Based on current market prices, 1 ton of this compost could sell for around $300. Production can be increased at little additional cost and create jobs to satisfy the growing labor needs. The sheer exhilaration of the trainees at learning about soil microbiology and unlocking its secrets through a better understanding of the relationship between healthy soils and healthy crops is a reward in itself. Already both trainees are sharing their newfound knowledge with their communities, lending much-valued support to awareness efforts by agro-ecology activists.

While waiting for much-needed reforms, such systems could start improving food security through soil health. They have proven to be effective at reinforcing solidarity and cooperation within communities when it comes to organizing the sourcing of organic raw materials. They could also play an important role in the production of certified organic produce that fetches higher prices in local and export markets. And, of course, it is good for the environment as it contributes to reducing waste and the risk of fires from burning such waste.

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Wael Yammine

Agricultural engineer specialized in compost
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Rita Khawand

Executive director of SOILS Permaculture Association – Lebanon
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