Pity the land

Lebanese food needs Lebanese agriculture

For all the pride that we Lebanese rightly take in our homey cuisine and fertile lands, our diets have long hinged on food shipped in from abroad. In September 2020, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported that Lebanese production satisfied only 20% of local needs. In decades past, this import-centric model was held up by an overvalued currency, whose collapse has now sent prices soaring. Ideally, this crisis would prompt a turn toward greater support for small-scale Lebanese farmers, whose role has never been more essential. So far, however, we have seen the opposite: We are doubling down on our appetite for foreign products, leaving local producers and consumers increasingly hard-pressed to make ends meet.

Lebanon’s post-independence government was never particularly concerned with supporting farmers. While neighboring Syria was pursuing aggressive policies of land reform, subsidization, and price control, Lebanon built a system based on liberal trade backed by an artificially strong pound. For some, this model worked well: Big businesses got rich through intensive trade, while consumers enjoyed plentiful access to foreign goods. For ordinary Lebanese producers, the picture was more ambiguous. Most could not achieve the scale or standards needed to export, and the flood of underpriced imports posed stiff competition locally. Yet this same system also helped them stay afloat, through ready access to foreign inputs like seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers. They purchased these inputs at a low price, from private suppliers who typically offered generous lines of credit: Only after harvesting and selling their produce would farmers pay off their debt.

This funding scheme has broken down amid the current crisis. Farmers remain heavily dependent on imported inputs priced in dollars, even as their revenues collapse. Suppliers who once sold those inputs on credit now demand dollars up-front. Most small farmers, who sell their produce in pounds, simply can’t make such advance payments. At their end, suppliers suffer from a shrinking customer base, but are themselves too squeezed to revert to lending: "The companies I buy goods from now require me to pay on the spot," said an aging input trader in Ras Baalbek, sipping his coffee in the quiet of his largely empty store. "Now everything is cash on delivery."

Even when farmers manage to reap a decent harvest, they struggle to market their produce. The challenges are many, from rising transport costs to diminished purchasing power in the Lebanese market. Competitiveness is also a problem: In the past, access to cheap inputs allowed farmers to sell at lower prices, which in turn enabled them to get by even as they neglected investments and innovation. Today they must jack up their prices to cover their own costs, making their goods unattractive both financially and quality-wise.

Other difficulties relate to poor governance. Lebanon lacks, for instance, a national crop calendar: a system which, in more organized markets, assists local producers by facilitating import restrictions during seasons of peak domestic production. Meanwhile, the absence of meaningful health regulations means that Lebanese exports rarely meet international phytosanitary standards. A farmer in Akkar, who in 2018 started producing potatoes for export, quickly found out that his low-quality seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers would bar him from external markets. Pacing his land, he explained to me wearily: "I briefly managed to export to France, but the middleman stopped dealing with me because of the quality problem."

To keep going, many small and medium farmers have been forced to decrease their production. They cut back on costly inputs, or choose to cultivate less land. Some seek other sources of income, which also means that they spend less time farming. In Btaaboura, a small town in northern Lebanon, a farmer in his sixties said that he’d become a school bus driver, while his wife focuses less on growing and more on making preserves (or mooneh). He added, in his booming voice: "This year I won’t be using pesticides and fertilizers because I cannot afford them. And I will harvest just part of our family land."

Another strategy consists of cutting costs by resorting to dirt cheap fertilizers and pesticides—even when they pose such acute health risks as to be banned even in Lebanon’s loosely regulated market. The farmer who failed to export to France explained: "The inputs we use are smuggled from Syria and not monitored. They are illegal in Lebanon, because they can cause cancer. So I sell my vegetables on local markets, in Tripoli or Akkar, where there are no sanitary controls whatsoever."

Meanwhile, what remains of state support—for instance free inputs which the Ministry of Agriculture distributes to farmers through municipalities—is increasingly dysfunctional. Producers grumble that, due to poor storage and delivery mechanisms, some inputs reach them only after they have expired. They also allege that, as corruption increases across Lebanon, state supplies are misused as a form of patronage: Middlemen with close connections to local authorities appropriate free goods and sell them in dollars to farmers. A soldier-turned-farmer, who has waited in vain for state support, slapped his palm on his kitchen table and exclaimed: "My brother-in-law bought pesticides from our neighbor, who doesn’t even own land! That neighbor received it for free from the municipality, because he is friends with the deputy mayor."

International donors, NGOs, and development banks have sought to plug the gaps, but with limited success. Aid projects are by nature short-term and decentralized; as such, even well-designed interventions cannot substitute for effective national governance. Moreover, foreign actors are particularly ill-suited to connecting with the small and medium farmers most acutely in need of support. Scattered across Lebanon’s peripheries and with little collective organization, such producers have no way of tapping the capital, know-how, or market access which foreign funds could otherwise provide. Instead, those best placed to benefit from aid are often the biggest, most well-established players.

This structural bias is compounded by the tendency, among many development actors, to push for ambitious transformations that are inaccessible to smaller producers. Organic farming, for example, holds obvious appeal—both environmentally and as a way to reduce dependence on imported fertilizers and pesticides. Yet transitioning to this approach requires years of learning, investment, and risk-taking, which are beyond the means of all but the most stable businesses. Other donor-led initiatives seek to level up the sector with new technologies, such as hydroponic agriculture: a system to grow crops using water-based solutions in place of soil, inside greenhouses that provide a controlled environment. Some donors see this as a path to sustainable farming, thanks to a more efficient use of water and land. But it also leaves farmers dependent on expensive inputs such as greenhouse structures, chemicals, and fuel. As such, hydroponics—like organic production—mean embarking on an expensive and hazardous transition. It is mostly well-off farmers who have the self-confidence to take that leap.

For those who do go down this path, the only way to recoup their investments is to generate foreign currency through export—another goal that has long structured foreign aid programs. But exporting entails reaching a high threshold of scale and quality, in a country where most farmers cultivate small plots and do not produce according to global standards. Export-oriented programs therefore favor a small group of large, corporate farmers, more than the agricultural sector as a whole. They also reinforce the old business logic of securing dollars to purchase imported inputs, therefore extending a model that now works only for the richest. A tough, middle-aged farmer, whose vast land borders Syria, explained: "The crisis does not affect large producers like me. Input and labor costs increased, but I can pay for them because I export all my harvest."

Bereft of meaningful support, vulnerable farmers find themselves in a holding pattern. Many voice a sense of waiting for the crisis to pass, in keeping with their tradition of taking a long view and betting on better seasons ahead. They find ways to continue working the same land, with the same machines and methods, that their families have relied on for generations. Some of their crops, such as olive or fruit trees, are long-term investments that cannot be quickly replaced. An apple farmer in Hrajel Shewye, whose hands have turned brown like the soil he works, said: "I still harvest apples I can’t sell, because if I were to abandon my trees, I will have to wait for years for them to produce again. So each year, I just hope the next will be better." This steadfastness, arguably, is a double-edged sword: While it can offer a precious sense of continuity and rootedness, it may also slow the structural change which these same farmers direly need.

In muddling through, farmers have grown increasingly reliant on their communities and local networks. Far more than they did in the past, they sell their produce directly to nearby consumers without recourse to the middlemen who previously linked them to markets farther afield. In many cases, farmers’ wives are actively building alternative retail mechanisms, among neighbors or at farmers’ markets. Some barter their produce for other goods, instead of buying and selling with cash. An elderly farmer in Deir el Qamar explained his system: "I have a deal with a private supplier. For a pesticide spray that costs 10 to 15 dollars, I give him produce worth as much. I also trade food for food, with other farmers who grow crops I don’t."

Many consumers are also adapting, buying in bulk directly from farmers and making preserves of their own. A once well-off woman in Mount Lebanon purchased 80 kilograms of tomato from a neighbor to make her own tomato paste, which she then distributed to family members. "It’s cheaper than buying from the store," she said matter-of-factly.

These improvised fixes won’t reinvent Lebanon’s outdated and fragmented agricultural sector, any more than foreign aid programs will. But they may help Lebanese begin to reinvent our relationship to food, creating the basis for a more hopeful future. People within Lebanon and the diaspora are fiercely attached not just to Lebanese cuisine, but to their villages and the surrounding countryside. That provides an easy starting point to build more personal relationships to the land and those who work it, through acts as simple as visiting a neighbor’s farm or asking questions at a local market. Over time, such individual rediscovery may add up to collective changes—not just in how Lebanon eats, but in how it supports those that feed it.

3 April 2023

Diana Salloum is a fellow with Synaps.

Illustration credit: photographs by the author / licensed by CC; social media card by Wallpaper flare.