Can the Lebanese Feed Themselves? Ask USAID.
According to the US Agency for International Development (USAID), “Lebanon has the highest proportion of cultivable land, per capita, in the Arab world. Approximately 60% of citizens outside greater Beirut rely on agriculture—directly or indirectly—and related industries for some form of household income; yet, the Lebanese agribusiness sector is underutilized. Food insecurity is also a problem.” With poverty now afflicting more than 70% of the population, initiatives to restart the agricultural sector are increasingly being funded by international donors.
USAID alone has several types of programs focused on improving agricultural production, marketing, and export. These range from replacing expensive diesel-run irrigation systems with solar-powered mechanisms to direct assistance to farmers There is also an export promotion program called Fair Trade Lebanon, the representatives of which are currently in the US promoting Lebanese exports of foodstuffs and wines, utilizing an East Coast US distribution facilities.
Promoting food exports from Lebanon is not an easy task. The agricultural community is cooperative but there are many steps involved in the export of agricultural products, from strengthening “food safety by upgrading food testing laboratories to comply with export market food standards, to making agribusiness more efficient and demand driven,” hopefully both increasing income generation and attracting new entrants into the sector.
In one USAID program for example, the Agency is working with Chambers of Commerce, Industry, and Agriculture in select areas to: identify and promote the cultivation of high value fruits, vegetables, and flowers. This includes upgrading the technical capability and capacity of domestic greenhouses or converting them into hydroponic production in order to match production levels with export market demands. Whether they be in the hillsides north and south of Beirut or in the Bekaa Valley, these ubiquitous greenhouses are now home to a large variety of products available for both domestic consumption and overseas markets.
Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, where we had a small vegetable plot, I can remember hearing my parents talk about how fruit and vegetables in Lebanon were so much tastier and larger than their US cousins. I saw the richness of the country’s products in souks and roadside stands around the country first hand in the 1970s, before the Civil War. Today, so much destruction and urbanization has altered the landscapes and livelihoods of the Lebanese people.
The government has a role to play by “upgrading rural economics [through] the certification, capacity, and quality of Lebanese agricultural laboratories and agricultural product development plants to create certified and internationally recognized ‘one-stop-export shops’.” The education system also has a significant role in supporting agri-business as a career, both in secondary schools as well as at universities and technical colleges. When I was gathering materials to include in an exhibition in Saudi Arabia in the early 80s, the people at Aramco agricultural centers proudly showed me their innovations in desert agriculture and introduced me to their technicians and scientists, all of whom were graduates of Lebanese schools, including AUB.
Fast forward to the present day, Lebanon faces an acute food crisis stemming from multiple causes. A key factor was Lebanon’s success in turning its brain drain of the 70s and 80s into remittances sent by the same Lebanese talent that pioneered so much of the growth in the GCC. That income enabled the Lebanese middle class to develop an economy in which 80% of the country’s consumption was imported, attracting huge foreign investments because of its stability and attractive lifestyles in addition to eliminating pricier Lebanese labor by hosting a domestic workforce of more than half a million from Syria and East Asia.
Now the age of an inflated standard of living has run its course, along with the financial pillars of sand propping it up, once again leaving the Lebanese searching for ways to rebuild their lives and economy. USAID and other foreign assistance programs are trying to help. This time, though the goal is not to provide a basic level of subsistence but rather reorient the workforce to skills that are directed toward regional and international markets.
One such program, which started this year, is the USAID Agriculture and Rural Empowerment (ARE) program, providing $57 million to support the development of rural economies in the country, in particular channeling resources to increase local and export sales in order to facilitate access to additional financial resources. More information on USAID agricultural programs in Lebanon can be found at this website.
Yet, it takes more than well-intentioned overseas donors for Lebanon to reap the benefits of the agri-business sector in its economy. The government must make its commitment to provide the legal and statutory framework to monitor and expand exports while not penalizing the necessary imports of machinery, seed, and fertilizer that the sector’s recovery demands. Instead of abused as a vehicle for smuggling drugs into Gulf countries and elsewhere, Lebanese produce can once again become a significant part of the economy by earning the well-deserved credibility of the international export market NAas the rich source of quality produce that it is.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans. The above image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.