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Can Lebanon compensate?

New agricultural policies are needed to wean Lebanon off imports

by Sami Nader

In light of Lebanon’s context and current difficulties, food security should focus on the ongoing availability, affordability, and accessibility of nutritious food products that satisfy the dietary needs of every Lebanese. Furthermore, the Lebanese agrifood industry must be developed to promote competitive exports, value-added activities, employment opportunities, and the expansion of Lebanon’s total food system in order to attain self-sufficiency.

Lebanon lacks quality products, modern agricultural practices, proper safety standards, traceability and a reliable certification system, limiting its agricultural potential on the national level, as well as its export potential and its integration into global value chains. Lebanon can be considered self-sufficient when it comes to fruits, vegetables, and wine; however, the country remains highly import dependent, importing more than 80 percent of its food needs. This pattern of behavior causes the country to be highly susceptible to shocks. Agricultural inputs (such as irrigation equipment, seeds, pesticides and fertilizers) are primarily imported, and have all witnessed price hikes,  making it more difficult for small-scale farmers to obtain these inputs, and forcing the majority to replace them with agricultural inputs of lesser quality, possibly leading to poorer yields and lower revenue, as per findings from Scaling-up Agri-Food Innovations, a project implemented by USAID to reduce the agricultural sector’s import dependency.

Animal feed is also imported, and is essential for the dairy and poultry industries. According to the World Bank, 1.7 million Lebanese are estimated to have fallen under the poverty line, with 841,000 of those under the food poverty line, as noted during the period between 2019 to 2021. However, food insecurity is more prominent in some regions than others, with the North governorate reporting the highest percentage of 27 percent compared to the Mount Lebanon governorate with 16 percent, as per the United Nations’s OCHR 2021 Emergency Response Plan for Lebanon.

A clear strategy is overdue

Achieving full self-sufficiency seems overly ambitious; however, this does not mean that Lebanon’s local agri-food sector cannot contribute to food security. First and foremost, Lebanon requires a clear strategy for its agri-food sector, one that identifies the most resilient sub-sectors and the most vulnerable sub-sectors; the most prominent challenges for every sub-sector; the most prominent challenges for agricultural water supply and availability; and the most prominent challenges limiting export of agri-food products; paving the way for complementary legislation and projects to improve overall agricultural standards, and provide farmers with the ability to improve their services for both the national and international markets. Generally, the agri-food business possesses two critical functions:

1. Promoting and maintaining food security;

2. Creating jobs and revenue within the industry.

However, the precariousness of Lebanon’s socioeconomic climate, the limited access to finance, and the undependable nature of public institutions have impaired the agri-food business’ ability to fulfill these functions. Developing an agricultural strategy necessitates a thorough examination of the interconnections between the agricultural system and the resources that support it (land, energy, water). Decisions across various resource systems are frequently made with insufficient coordination. The strategy must also capitalize on Lebanon’s highly skilled labor pool, as well as incorporate modern technologies and automated systems into farming operations. Foreign market demands and criteria must be evaluated in order to develop high-quality foods for these markets. Accordingly, new agricultural policies should be designed to ensure export stability, demand development for local goods and the subsequent introduction of new commodities at the local and international level.

In the short-term, food consumption patterns and food security metrics should be studied to identify important indicators such as domestic production quantities and values, domestic consumption quantities, and exports and imports for each item related to the agri-food industry. Based on these figures, strategic local production sectors, which are most likely those where Lebanon is already self-sufficient such as fruits, vegetables, and bulgur wheat, should be prioritized. Moreover, incentivizing farmers to substitute traditional crops for imported produce that is essential for food security (e.g. chickpeas, barley); or substituting crops which operate at a loss with crops containing higher input to the human diet (legumes as sources of proteins and cereals or potato as source of starch), can help limit import dependency. 

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