Hobbyists hope to end hunger in Lebanon by cultivating their own crops
TSE COVID-19 The pandemic has brought endless comparisons to the Spanish flu, which toured the world in 1918. For Lebanon, however, the defining event of this decade was not flu but famine: years of hunger that killed half of the population during the First World War. The story feels newly relevant as the country slumps into depression and food prices skyrocket. Trapped at home in recent months, often in their ancestral villages, some Lebanese have tried to grow their own food. On a rooftop in Beirut, tomato plants crawl skyward. A designer spends the week behind a computer and the weekends picking beans in the mountains. Young people share advice on what to grow and when.
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Famous for its food, Lebanon is better at preparing food than producing it. Some 20-25% of workers are involved in agriculture (including part-time and seasonal work on family plots). About 13% of the land is arable, with microclimates suitable for almost all crops. The rolling fields of the Bekaa Valley can grow winter wheat and summer vegetables. The Mediterranean coast supports a year round rotation.
Yet agriculture generates less than 3% of GDP and Lebanon imports 80% of its food. Farms are often too small to benefit from economies of scale. A third of factories in Lebanon manufacture packaged food, from poultry to pickles. Again, however, nearly 90% of them are small family businesses, said Mounir Bissat, director of the Lebanese Industrial Union.
Today, a worsening currency crisis threatens to devastate the industry. The Lebanese pound has lost 63% of its value since October. This should help farmers and producers, as consumers turn to local produce, but little about the Lebanese food trade is truly local. Most of its inputs, such as seeds, fertilizers and animal feed, are imported. The government subsidizes fuel, but for everything else, suppliers have to get dollars on the black market, which has skyrocketed prices. Potatoes and onions cost a third more than last spring. The prices of tomatoes have more than doubled. Pine nuts are so expensive that people joke about using them in place of diamonds on engagement rings. Triangle, a local think tank, believes that even simple dishes like moujaddara, a mixture of rice and lentils topped with fried onions, now costs 50% more to prepare.
Farmers are trapped in a cycle of debt. As cheap credit is scarce, they take out loans from businesses that import agricultural supplies. Riad Saade, head of the Lebanese Agricultural Research and Studies Center, estimates the outstanding debts at 140 million dollars. That seems paltry compared to the economy in general (banks are forecasting losses of up to $ 80 billion). But farmers may find it difficult to repay even that amount. Weak demand and a weaker currency will lead to a drop in their income. Mr. Saade estimates the value of field crops sold in 2020 at just $ 58 million, up from $ 181 million in 2018.
Bad practices add to the burden. The poorly funded Ministry of Agriculture offers little help. Farmers often receive technical advice from their suppliers, and some of it is bad. “These companies have a vested interest in people using their products more,” says Hadi Jaafar, professor of agriculture at the American University of Beirut. Lebanese farmers deposit 330 kg of fertilizer per hectare of arable land, one of the highest rates in the world. The use of pesticides is also high.
Hobbyists can help, but only to a limited extent. Almost 90% of Lebanese live in urban areas. In greater Beirut, home to a third of the population, few have more than a balcony or roof to plant. Hassan Diab, the Prime Minister, has promised to subsidize imports of basic goods, a temporary solution (if it is expensive and inefficient). Farmers need access to credit and to appropriate scientific advice. Some economists have called for a temporary freeze on their debts. Factories need reliable electricity and better transportation, two issues the government has failed to address for decades. Investing in agriculture would bring not only food, but also jobs and exports, all of which are essential in a country that can no longer live beyond its means. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the title “Gardens of Devaluation”