Organic farming, a fast-growing industry at the global level, has faced numerous challenges in Lebanon. According to a 2020 EU-led survey on organic ecosystems, these threats and weaknesses have been amplified by the country’s economic crisis and include high production costs, lack of government subsidies, and the reduced purchasing power of Lebanese customers (a problem that has been exacerbated in the following two years with the worsening of the economic crisis). Faced with these challenges, among which a skyrocketing cost of energy was a particularly debilitating element, organic farmers and farming operators are turning to renewable energy (RE) solutions for both cost savings as well as to improve efficiency and reduce harmful environmental impact.
Biomass, an organic farming operator founded in 2007 which now has over 15 farms under management and works with over 50 farming partners, began a gradual switch to solar energy in February of this year. In addition to introducing water pumps powered by solar photovoltaics (PV) to three farms, they have also transitioned their packaging center in Batroun to solar power. For Biomass, whose name is only serendipitously—or perhaps prophetically—related to the term for fuel produced through organic matter, RE solutions have enabled the company to introduce greater efficiency and think about reduced consumption of resources in a new way. Despite high capital expenditures that make transition to renewable energy a long-term project, the advantages overwhelmingly make it a worthwhile, and even inevitable investment.
As a market participant that is active along the agricultural value chain, Biomass looks at energy use in two phases: the farming phase and the post-harvest phase. At the farming level, energy is used for the nursery, heating greenhouses, and for irrigation. Their focus centers primarily around how to optimize water consumption by irrigating less, improving rainwater collection, and keeping the soil rich, healthy, and moist, and through farming techniques such as strip farming, crop rotation, and companion planting to name a few. The introduction of water pumps connected to solar PV systems is a first step towards RE, but Biomass is also looking to bring in biofuel from composting matter and set up an agrovoltaic system where solar panels share land with agricultural products.
At the post-harvest level, energy is used for cooling, cleaning, storing, sorting, and packaging products. In the packing house in Batroun, fridges and machinery for packaging and labeling are now powered by solar panels which were installed gradually over six months and led to a trial-and-error approach. When energy consumption increased over the summer, more batteries were added to match the growing needs. At the time of this writing, Biomass is in a period of assessing whether more panels will be needed based on how well their fluctuating energy needs are met across production seasons.
Although Biomass farms and farming partners across Lebanon follow different location-based production timelines and harvest windows to benefit from various microclimates, the efficiency of Biomass’ energy consumption is based on the season. During rainy months when solar energy is reduced, less energy is needed for irrigation. However, when the energy costs are annualized across the four seasons, the first year’s experience with RE has manifested as reduction of operating costs through a 40 to 50 percent lowering of the monthly fuel bill, which in some months had run up as high as $7,000.
From its perspective as an environmentally and climate conscious actor in the agricultural value chain from soil and seed to packaging and delivery to market, Biomass’ significant reduction in fuel consumption and fuel cost, however, is just one happy peak in a chain of benefits. The four big costs in the industry are land rents, energy and irrigation costs, labor, and costs of organic inputs. Out of these, installing solar pumping systems allows instant cost-saving, efficiency and environmental benefits towards energy and irrigation costs, which is evidenced by the fact that all Biomass’ direct competitors in Lebanon have begun making the move to solar energy. The rationale is striking: once the initial investment can be managed—or made in gradual phases—solar energy allows for longer storage periods by avoiding steep diesel costs, and thus services can be offered for a longer period. Biomass’ move to solar energy demonstrates—better than any theoretical paper on climate and environmental risks—that reliance on RE is incomparably more advantageous than usage of conventional fuel across the entire food value chain.
Although RE is more aligned with the organic and regenerative aims of Biomass’ mission than carbon or diesel, the economic value is paramount for the company. To be both economically viable and regenerative, Biomass believes that the commercial must align with the financial which must align with the environmental aspects of the business model, and transitioning to RE is a step forward for all these objectives.
Mario Massoud is the CEO of Biomass and Marie Murray is an editor for Executive Magazine