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Circular agriculture

An opportunity to boost the Lebanese economy

by Carl Safi

Circularity is an approach that has been intensively studied over the past ten years. It is based on three main principles: designing out waste and pollution; keeping products and materials in use; and regenerating natural systems. It fundamentally differs from the traditional linear economy where products are produced to ultimately become, after being used, low-value products or waste (Figure 1). Whereas in the case of an ideal circular model, the products enter into a closed-loop where each component of the product will be valorized and reinjected into the cycle for similar or different use in the market. Therefore, no waste is generated, the value of the product does not decline, and it has a positive environmental impact. The circularity approach applies across a range of industries such as agriculture, textile, construction, energy, plastic, furniture, alcohol, and many others. However, before diving into circular agriculture, it is worthwhile spotlighting on a plausible example that is in line with the circular economy: the refurbishment of electronics. Refurbished items are reconditioned, verified, tested and given a second or even third life in the market. They are affordable, as efficient as new items, and most importantly, the environmental footprint associated with refurbished electronics manufacturing is significantly lower. Undoubtedly, a perfect circular process is not realistic for every single sector given that some waste is expected and thus fresh new feedstock will always be required, but to a much lesser extent (Figure 1). Therefore, another challenge for the optimal system is to source the inflow of resources from sustainable sources and use the residual flows leaving the circle low value applications (energy, compost) or in other sectors if possible (Figure 1).

In addition to its positive environmental impact, the circularity approach has promising economic prospects. According to McKinsey and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the economic potential of a circular economy is estimated at $1 trillion globally. That potential has led to the emergence of many startups across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region that focus on disruptive ideas as alternatives to traditional approaches.

Consequently, in the first half of 2022 alone, nearly $2 billion was raised from startups in the MENA region. Despite its disastrous situation on all levels, Lebanon held the second position after the United Arab Emirates in terms of fund raising. The implications of this ranking confirm that Lebanese entrepreneurs are resilient, knowledgeable, and surely capable of overcoming the unprecedented struggles that Lebanon is currently facing.

Maximum value from agricultural residues

Agriculture plays an important role in the Lebanese economy. It is vital that it adopts the circularity approach in order to be sustainable and increase the value of its crops. Therefore, an optimal processing cascade to valorize the agricultural side streams or leftovers will certainly increase the value of the crops, thereby closely integrating the circular model. In agriculture, it is important that the circularity model takes into consideration the cascading process that will first valorize the valuable components into high-end applications and the remaining into low-value applications (Figure 1).

Among the main Lebanese agricultural industries are grape, apple, potato, orange, lemon, tomato, carob and olive. All these resources have been present in the Lebanese market for decades. However, they generate large leftovers or side streams which are not well managed. In most cases, they are either disposed or burned, or transformed into compost to fertilize fields. This indicates that Lebanese agriculture complies more with the linear approach that the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity advocating for a circular economy, often describes in three main stages: take (harvesting of raw material), make (item production), and waste (use and ultimate disposal of the item). Using agriculture residues as fertilizer and soil enhancer is already a form of circularity. This is already a step forward in sustainability to synthetic fertilizers. Nevertheless, this approach underestimates the true potential of agricultural leftovers. Agricultural residual streams are loaded with a wealth of valuable components that can be used for food, feed and biobased materials. Among these components are proteins, fibers, nutrients, unsaturated fatty acids, polyphenols, starch, sugars, fructose, sucrose, and the list goes on. This implies that a number of valuable applications can be developed and an additional line of revenues can be sustainably generated. Therefore, Lebanese agriculture should adopt a more modern approach to valorize its agricultural leftovers and avoid selling its raw material at a cheap price. In addition, agricultural residues should not be looked at as a burden but rather as an economic and environmental opportunity.

Let us take the example of carob; a bean legume with an industry that generated $802 million in 2020, and is forecasted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.4 percent within the next eight years. Every year, Lebanon produces around 4,000 tons of carob that is either used to make molasse or a carob-based milk beverage, or cheaply exported ($1,000 per ton) abroad. However, given the growing interest in carob constituents and their health benefits, multiple applications have been created from carob and their leftovers that go beyond the production of molasse. Accordingly, industries are interested in Locust Bean Gum, a natural thickener that can be found in carob seeds and used in food applications, nutraceuticals, cosmetics and other biobased materials. There is also an interest in carob powder as a cocoa alternative.
Therefore, a simple economic extrapolation (Figure 2) shows that the benefits of adopting the circularity approach by valorizing these high value components outweigh the benefits of the traditional approach by 10 to 30-fold after including the costs associated to the production of these applications.

Sustainable generation of profit

Lebanese farmers and producers have the edge when it comes to carob because these trees grow in the Mediterranean region. Given that the interest in carob ingredients is rising exponentially across the globe, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Cyprus have started to intensify the cultivation of carob trees in order to gain a bigger market share and properly valorize this crop. Lebanese farmers should follow the example of these countries to take part in this growing industry and benefit from Lebanon’s perfect geographical location to grow carob trees. Moreover, Lebanese farmers should start to think big by producing and selling the (intermediate) products rather than the raw materials.

Lebanese grape production is another example that should adopt the circularity approach, especially when it is associated with wine production. A large amount of grape pomace is generated after producing wine. It is estimated that 1 kilogram of pomace is generated for every 6 liters of wine. Overall, Lebanon has produced 9.7 million liters of wine so far in 2022, which implies that around 1,620 tons of pomace have been generated. The price of grape pomace compost is estimated at $4.5 per kilogram. Grape pomace is composed of grape skins, grape stalks, and grape seeds. Polyphenols range from $5 to $100 a kilogram depending on purity, and pectin from $25 to $35 a kilogram, are abundant in all of these fractions. The seeds are also rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids (from $5 to $35 per kilogram) and proteins, whereas the stalks are rich in fibers that are suitable for biochar production at $2.5 per kilogram. However, despite these facts, Lebanese farmers in general are still selling grape pomace as compost or disposed of, thereby neglecting its true value in a linear form. Thus, rather than simply transforming grape pomace into compost, it will be worthwhile adopting the circularity approach to properly valorize this side stream and sustainably generate ten times more profits. The same approach applies on other Lebanese crops like olives, acorn, apples, tomatoes, potatoes, lemons, and oranges.

Agriculture in Lebanon should not be seen as a low value domain but rather as an opportunity in which new technological advancements and approaches should be incorporated. Nevertheless, a major change of mindset should be established by starting from basic education up to advanced education in order to increase awareness and provide guidance in how to develop Lebanese agriculture. The circular economy model is the fruit of over a decade of research that validated its efficiency in a world that is witnessing major ecological shifts, and it is a true economic potential for Lebanon. Major corporations across the globe have adopted the circularity approach, and many startups are following the same model by creating new ideas that gravitate around circularity. In a lot of economically thriving countries like The Netherlands, such models and innovations are strongly encouraged and facilitated by investing in research, education and subsidizing projects. Unfortunately, due to the lack of financial resources and supporting governance, the Lebanese government does not have the means to support such initiatives. Alternatively, the private sector, NGOs, foundations, associations, the Dutch embassy in Beirut, agencies like USAID and UNDP are very active in Lebanon and they must lead the way to make a positive impact with such development projects. Furthermore, Lebanese people are very ambitious, educated, driven, courageous, and willing to embark on new disruptive ideas that will make a positive difference and contribute to Lebanon’s self-sufficiency and sustainability. The combination of private sector, non-profit organizations and Lebanese people will certainly put things on track for a better valorization of agricultural leftovers.

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