Home Economics & PolicyFood security Food made in Lebanon: Buzzing with diversity and contradictions

Food made in Lebanon: Buzzing with diversity and contradictions

Seeking out the voices of agriculture means listening to the songs of a quiet land

by Thomas Schellen

The village of Kfarmishki in the western Bekaa hugs a hillside. Its apparent central intersection, whose main features include a roadside bench and a resilient donkey, takes three seconds to traverse and less to fade into memory. 

 Kfarmishki is not exciting in the picture-book sense of some other Lebanese villages. If there were such a thing as, however staid, a national competition for village beautification (the kind that once upon a time motivated villagers around Western Europe to embark on gardening and decorating frenzies), a crafty public relations copywriter might call Kfarmishki the jewel of the Bekaa or the pearl on the hill. They would be lying – except from the angle that it is an average village in a land where villages have deep-rooted, and thus intriguing, identities and communal histories. 

There are a few routes for getting to Kfarmishki from Beirut or any of the coastal traffic centers. Yet, whatever route and mode of land transport one selects, getting to this village will require a couple of hours travel on bad roads and there is no direct public transport link from pretty much anywhere. Also in this regard, it is a typical Lebanese village in the deep hinterland. But if the copywriter were to attach one or other glorifying epithet to this remote aggregation of humanity, our hypothesized PR wordsmith would actually be speaking truth when portraying Kfarmishki as a village that is looking for a sustainable future, and doing so with foreign financial support – in an initiative that is developing up from the vine-roots (the grass-roots allegory seems misaligned with the agricultural geography in the area) because of its enterprising denizens. 

As an expression of their entrepreneurial vigor and after a two-year interruption, the Kfarmishkites (or Kfarmishkians?) organized their 4th Mouneh and Grape Festival in September 2022. The festival turns the dusty square in front of its church into a stage for young dabkeh performers, and the adjacent street into a lively market with two rows of booths displaying local products; from fresh organic fruits to a large range of “mouneh” or preserves/pickles, as well as wine (“Domaine Pierre”) and arak. The occasion of the festival also makes for an affordable opportunity (exceptionally on this weekend, there is a dedicated bus service from Beirut) to get a first-hand feel for the economic mood among the farming community. 

Wissam Ek-Khoury, the head of Kfarmishki’s local farmers cooperative

 This year, the harvest festival has seen some weakening in the number of urban visitors, Wissam El Khoury, head of the local cooperative, tells Executive. “There have been difficulties in organizing the festival because everything has changed from 2019 until today. The crisis has affected Kfarmishki and all farmers are affected by it,” he acknowledges.  

The agriculturalists struggle to succeed against the same pressures facing the urban majority of Lebanon, like the loss of subsidies, inflation, depreciation, and shrinking purchasing power. Yet, when compared to Beirut and the other large cities, Khoury nonetheless sees a better proposition for sustenance where he is. In his view, agriculture is less vulnerable to the economic and political situation than other sectors. “In Beirut, it is more difficult and so we prefer to live in Kfarmishki. Farmers are resorting to plant their produce and meet their own [food] needs from this. It is somehow easier than existing in the city,” he elaborates in a mixture of Arabic and English, with the active translation support of his daughter.

According to Khoury, a group of farmers set up the village co-op in 2013 and since then developed a local support farming infrastructure that included trucks and other equipment, which were acquired with the help of Lebanese and international NGOs. The co-op has 25 members among Kfarmishki’s agriculturalists, of whom there are about 100 in total.

Photovoltaic renewable energy capacity was installed on the roof of the village school well before the collapse of electricity subsidies, as well as in the co-op’s most recent initiative, a central mouneh kitchen, which was implemented this year. However, the open-air irrigation water dugout reservoirs down the hill are mostly empty this September, because of high fuel costs that impede the transportation of water, Khoury says. Other infrastructure needs, such as cold storage facilities, require costly transportation, while the farmers’ markets in Beirut are too far away to access regularly. A platform for marketing the village’s agro-food outputs is desirable and being thought about, but absent. 

Within the boundaries of their rural circumstances, the farmers have adopted an ambidextrous mix of practicing subsistence and export orientation. “We plant all kinds of fruits and greens and vegetables on our lands to secure our existence. We use only pesticides that are certified and permitted when shipping products to the world and the co-op has adopted the [European] Global G.A.P. [farm management] standards. We export all our grapes. Our biggest challenge is in developing our competitive advantage versus countries that produce the same [fruits and vegetables] as we do,” Khoury says. 

Hearing a co-op leader talk about competitive advantages and learning that international standards are known and professed to be at the level of Lebanese village farming should not surprise in the least. Assuming agriculturalists to be ignorant, despite their position as economic actors in an ever more interconnected and competitive world would be an insult to the intelligence and development of rural communities anywhere, and certainly in Lebanon with its high-middle-income background and predilection for innovation and advancement.     

Leaving Kfarmishki and crossing the Bekaa plains on the return trip to Beirut, images of ripening crops in field after field, interspersed with fields where groups of seasonal workers are engaged in harvests, reinforce the impression of a highly fertile plateau that is a base for agriculture and sustainable agro-industry. Lebanon, despite its high degree of urbanization and an estimated rural population of about 11 percent, is a country of many villages where economic hardships have assuredly intensified due to three crisis years but where solutions, evidenced most visibly in new renewable energy installations, are in process. 

Journeying past Bekaa villages is finally a reminder that clusters of people have been living on these fertile lands since Neolithic times and those blessed with living here have regularly been producing food far in excess of their subsistence needs. In comparison to the norms of the period, high agricultural productivity has been the prevailing reality already when Josephus, the Jerusalem based, Roman-era historian of the first century AD, saw “not a parcel of waste land” in his military forays into the “Galilee” region between Mount Carmel and the Litani river. 

Some commentators on Josephus’ exuberant descriptions have supposed exaggeration in his praise of a Levantine territory that is partly in modern Lebanon, as one being “everywhere so rich in soil and pasturage and produces  such variety of trees, that even the most indolent are tempted by these facilities to devote themselves to agriculture.” However, save for man-made food catastrophes (most famously the Mount Lebanon famine in World War I), during the past 20 centuries since the scribe of the Roman empire reported from Galilee, territories in Palestine and Lebanon have to this day been absent from the long list of famines around the world. Intense and extensive life-threatening disruptions of this agro-system’s productivity have been few and entwined with human failures to let each other live.

Peeling away misperceptions  

The Levant was noted as one of the original interactive habitats of wheat and human by five American University of Beirut researchers in a 2019 paper: “Cereal culture, including cultivated strains of wheat and barley, originated in the Levant and expanded northward… into central Europe in the 6th millenium BC.” But even without agonizing over the irony, it is doubly counter-intuitive to think that this thriving landscape, albeit entangled into a negative cycle of diminishing water, energy and biodiversity resources, would fall into a severe wheat production crisis in the third decade of the 21st century.

It also comes at a time when global wheat cultivation has been producing yields which have fluctuated in annual and multi-year terms, but for half a century have moved along an upward trend line to unprecedented magnitudes. 

Not only run against the historical evidence of the agricultural fecundity of Lebanese lands, and against this year’s harvest season’s evidence of the Lebanese productivity having survived the most intense crisis years that any rational economists could have imagined, such assumptions generate an obligation to check the facts and weed out the exaggerated allegations related to food in Lebanon, and the general size of the food insecurity threat.  

The community of nations officially adopted the goal to eradicate acute food insecurity and hunger along with poverty in 2000 with the establishment of the United Nations Millennium Declaration. When 15 years later, the Millenium Development Goals were expanded into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the target of “zero hunger” became the second of the 17 SDGs. Against a background of progress towards achieving SDG 1, eradication of poverty, and 2, zero hunger, in the 2000s and much of the 2010s, two things must be recognized: firstly, progress towards SDG 2, according to the UN, has been slipping away since 2015; secondly, only after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did the topic of food security come to dominate the global debate. 

One cannot ignore that many speeches and passionate declarations about the risk or even certain coming of a “global food crisis” during the past eight months have been driven by politics. The sudden rise of “panicky headlines” about a global wheat crisis was not based solely on the facts, as noted by Sarah Taber, a crop scientist and contributor to US publication Foreign Policy. She wrote that a regional supply crunch of wheat was clearly present for countries that source wheat from Eastern Europe (such as Lebanon and other Middle East and North Africa countries), but argued that this was not the same as a global wheat crisis. According to her, record crops in Australia, India and elsewhere were indicating that globally, “there was enough to feed everyone” – but only if the transport and distribution questions are addressed.    

And yet, the evidence suggests that the politicization of the wheat issue immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been more than a layer of propaganda warfare. The slinging of mutual accusations of “weaponization of food” by parties with direct and indirect stakes in the Ukraine conflict – the latter including the US  and the European Union and a host of international organizations – has drawn the attention of leaders, global financial organizations (the IMF created a food shock window), and influencers to a food crisis that would otherwise not have received the attention that it needs. The eruption of the Ukraine conflict into a regional supply crunch of wheat and edible oils is a wake-up call in alerting the world to the return of hunger on an epidemic and devastating level. 

In its latest report on the state of food security and nutrition, the danger of hunger has been quantified by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) as afflicting nearly 830 million people in 2021. On the occasion of World Food Day this October, the UN World Food Program (WFP) said food crises have this year been escalating in vulnerable countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Moreover, the organization announced that it was “holding back famine” in five countries: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. “Things can and will get worse unless there is a large-scale and coordinated effort to address the root causes of this crisis,” warned WFP Executive Director David Beasley. 

 In a search to gain an accurate perspective by starting from the most afflicted area, the acute food insecurity and danger of famine in parts of Somalia stands out through its horrendous dimension. Estimates read that 6.7 million people are suffering acute food insecurity,  and 300,000 lives will be at risk of starvation at the end of 2022, among a population of 16 million. Recent analyses by various scientists, including social scientists, say that the current crisis marks the third famine event in Somalia since 1990. Analyses of Somalia’s large-scale famines of 1991 and 2011/12 stipulate that long periods of drought underlying the catastrophes are linked to long-standing climate phenomena in the past, and to climate change today. 

In a comparison of numbers of victims of starvation in Somalia and Ethiopia in the past decade, other academic researchers have demonstrated the importance of state capacity and governance in keeping famine at bay. Scientists noted the absence of mitigating factors in Somalia, where a quarter of a million people starved in 2011/12, versus Ethiopia, where very few fatalities occurred in a severe drought in 2015. The factors that kept famine in Ethiopia in check included the presence of improved capacity by the state to deliver services and unencumbered use of international aid. 

This is a clarion call to tell all of humankind that the ethos of conflict resolution must prevail against the increasing social and political rifts between and within nations, while diplomacy has to be intensified and international solidarity cannot stop. As the highly divergent food crisis outcomes in countries at the Horn of Africa in the 2010s have shown, provisions of international aid, but also inter-communal and intra-communal support networks of expatriates and families contribute greatly to lowering levels of acute food insecurity and famine. Extension of aid to tribes and ethnic groups that suffer from being ostracized serves food insecurity mitigation needs. Control of unrest and mitigation of underlying factors such as racial hatred and social exclusion of ethnic groups are vital in averting famines, as they can lead to, at least temporary, cessation of internal warfare by militias and a reduction in conflict exposures of aid workers. 

Tackling the obstacles 

The facts (scientifically confirmed) of agricultural capacity and production on the ground are that the world is producing more food than ever before. The moral consensus view of academic and activist food security advocates is that in 2022, no one should suffer from lack of food, let alone extreme starvation.  The issues entwined with the politics and economics of food in the current global setting should leave no mind in doubt that food crises, up to the threats of acute food insecurity and famine – the difference between the two being contained in degrees of severity of malnutrition and the mortality rates in an affected population – are correlated with issues of human behavior, such as war, wastage, and an overweight of anonymized financial greed. 

What does this imply for the food crisis of the tiny country of Lebanon? Like it is for all countries, the global rise in food insecurity is also a local wake-up call. This year’s intense declarations of unfolding food security emergencies, whether in drought-hit countries or countries inundated by floods, require looking at the problems of equitable access to food and agro-industry products as the unsolved catastrophe at the core of food insecurity. And so it is in Lebanon. “The four main pillars of food security are food safety, and the availability, accessibility, and utilization of food. Among these four pillars, accessibility relates less to producers but is found on the consumer side, where it is threatened,” Marc Bou Zeidan, a microbiologist and manager of the Qoot food innovation cluster, tells Executive. 

According to him, the economic crisis has impacted food security of the Lebanese people in a tangled way. The local market could not provide hard-currency income to producers and both farmers and agro-industrialists were inextricably drawn to export markets. As these markets are highly demanding in terms of quality, reliability, branding and regulation, smart agriculturalists and agro-industrialists secured certifications and focused on quality for exports. “The crisis has shifted the interest of producers towards exports and neglect of the local market. [This shift] is very important for the sustainability [of producers] but very bad for food security in the local context. We are exporting all that is good and all that remains here in Lebanon is what is of lower quality. Although I don’t want to be rude [in saying so], what is left here in Lebanon is risky in terms of food safety. This is a very dangerous result of the shift towards exports.” 

The contradiction between the need to export for economic sustainability and the need to serve the population in the country with safe and healthy foodstuffs, points to the importance of strategies that develop the Lebanese agro-sector from within, under the inclusion of international funding and advisory partners, rather than being imposed from an administrative distance or, as seen early in the 2000s, imported as wholesale concepts that get stuck in the traps of corrupt bureaucracies and centers of political power.  

According to the food security experts and agricultural stakeholders met by Executive, markets and multinational corporations in the agro-industry must not be shunned but a balance of food sovereignty and food security in an overall framework of food interdependence needs to be targeted. Opportunities based on certification, compliance with quality standards such as Global G.A.P., grass-roots collaboration among agro-sector members – of which the Qoot cluster, according to Bou Zeidan, has seen amazing examples in its five years of operations to date – and smart use of natural food export windows, abound. Doing all this while applying partnership strategies that are constructed from the bottom-up and are inclusive of top-down and administrative and regulatory buy-in, will allow the production of an agro-food earnings pie which will be worth multiples of the annual food export earning currently achieved, and that will boost food security for the Lebanese. 

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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