Home / Issues and Investigations / Lebanese turn to alternative farming as food prices soar

Lebanese turn to alternative farming as food prices soar

Standing on the rooftop of an office in Beirut’s tightly packed Burj al-Barajneh camp, Omar Abu Zeinab weeds and waters a recently grown plot of potatoes, mouloukhiya, and other seasonal greens.

“It’s an experiment, we want to see what works and what doesn’t before building more rooftop farms and showing people that they don’t need a garden to grow food,” he says. “Everything we’ve put together here is recycled and sourced locally.”

Abu Zeinab is among the many people in Lebanon turning to small-scale organic agriculture as food prices soar. The 60 percent devaluation of the Lebanese pound since Oct. 2019 has made many imports, including some foods, prohibitively expensive.

The price of sugar rose 65 percent between March 2019 and March 2020 according to the Consultation and Research Institute, a local firm that monitors the consumer price index in Beirut. During that period, fava beans also rose by 55 percent, flour by 45 percent and rice by 44 percent.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which threatened to wipe out Lebanon’s flow of wheat as the country’s main suppliers – Russia and Ukraine – either enacted or mulled export bans in order to bolster domestic reserves.

Such is the concern about access to food that Prime Minister Hassan Diab in May wrote in the Washington Post warning of a wave of hunger-induced migration to Europe unless Western states come to Lebanon’s aid.

Commentators like to point out that Lebanon was once the breadbasket of the eastern Mediterranean. It now imports as much as 80 percent of its food. But with the right support for the existing and emerging small-scale farming initiatives, Lebanon can go far in guaranteeing its food security.

Many people who have turned recently to growing food need guidance, and a budding support community has grown online for people seeking to cultivate their land, rooftops or balconies.

Dozens of people pose questions and post tips on Twitter each day, using the #agrinerds tag to connect with novice growers and more seasoned farmers.

Others have met on the Izraa group on Facebook, which was set up by a team of agricultural engineers in January 2020 to post tutorials and advice. It has since developed into a community of around 30,000 members.

Though challenging, the self-taught approach can yield good results.

Software developer Hayan Abou Reslan has cultivated around 7,000 square meters of land near Hammana in Baabda for just over a year. Farming each morning before traveling into Beirut for his day job, he drew upon some inherited knowledge, “a lot of YouTube videos and some experimentation” to grow his crops.

He said that the results were mixed but that he was able to produce around 500 kilograms of green beans over four months on a 180-square-meter plot.

“This whole year we didn’t need to buy tomato sauce or beans because we stored it all [from last year’s harvest],” he added.

It is also possible to cultivate abandoned land and even small commercial farms without relying on expensive imported seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.

Agriculture Ministry figures show that Lebanon in 2019 alone spent $14 million, $37 million, and $19 million importing these respective products.

“It boils down to how much you control the resources around you,” said Hussein Kazoun, who started a 45,000-square-meter organic farm in the Bekaa Valley four years ago.

“I do my best – I use plants that go well with each other, try not to play a big role if insects or diseases come. Sometimes I use organic pesticides that I make, or leave it be,” he said.

Kazoun said that his farm is fertilized entirely with local compost and grows almost exclusively local seeds that he sources from a nearby seed bank.

This approach is scalable. Environmental engineer Ziad Abi-Chaker told The Daily Star that Lebanon could do away with imported chemical fertilizers entirely if composting was rolled out across the country.

“Lebanon generates 7,000 tons of waste per day, of which 5,250 tons is organic material. If you compost this, you will get roughly 2,888 tons of finished compost per day. In one month you would get 86,640 tons. This is way more than what we used to import before,” he said.

This approach can also be decentralized. Back in Burj al-Barajneh, Abu Zeinab explained that the compost used on the rooftop farm originated as waste and unsold food from local greengrocers, which he layered with wood.

“We sent this compost to a lab for testing and it turned out 98 percent organic matter,” he boasted.

The farm is part of a food security initiative run by the Jafra Foundation, an NGO that also has a hydroponic rooftop farm in Shatila, a 1,000-square-meter organic farm in the Bekaa Valley and a seed farm in Ain al-Hilweh.

The right seeds are also a key ingredient for reducing Lebanon’s dependency on price-volatile imported products.

Serge Harfouche, a farmer at the Buzuruna Juzuruna (Our seeds, Our roots) seedbank, promotes heirloom seeds in particular as a way to expand Lebanon’s food sovereignty.

“Heirloom seeds are open source,” he says. “They are not patented or controlled by corporations and they are not sterile, so you can produce your own seeds.”

Harfouche explained that heirloom seeds also do not need to be treated with specific chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Farmers can therefore avoid the cycle of debt and dependency that often comes with hybrid seed use.

Buzuruna Juzuruna has created “quite a decent seed library” over five years on its 20,000-square-meter plot in the Bekaa Valley. It also does trainings on agroecology so that farmers can eventually create their own seed libraries. “The idea is to decentralize completely,” Harfouche added.

Agriculture consultant Mohanad Dabbagh told The Daily Star that Lebanon could feasibly produce 70 percent of its food needs if the idle land was put to use intelligently and small farmers were supported.

This would include cover cropping during off-seasons, when oats and other grains could be grown to slash Lebanon’s $143 million annual import bill for livestock feed.

“Around 85 percent of Lebanon’s food was produced locally during the 1980s,” Dabbagh said. “Worldwide small farmers produce 70 percent of the population’s food needs, but in Lebanon they are totally forgotten about.”

It’s not hard to see why Dabbagh feels this way when just 0.35 percent of the 2020 state budget is allocated to the Agriculture Ministry in its entirety.

But there are several measures it could take at little cost.

One would be to offer more guidance to new small farmers on how to regenerate their soil, which has often been long abandoned or degraded by chemical pesticides. “If they received proper guidance now, they may be able to make a good crop next year,” Dabbagh said.

Lebanese authorities could also play a coordinating role between small farmers, help them to access markets and strengthen price controls and competition laws.

“Not a lot of people are making it in organic farming today because they don’t know how to sell their stuff,” said Kazoun, whose company Field to Fork has managed to build a distribution list of around 900 direct customers.

He added that the government’s failure to crack down on wholesalers profiteering off small farmers was another key hurdle.

Many new cooperatives have emerged recently to help growers cut out the middleman and sell their products directly. But poor planning means that farmers often end up producing the same items, pushing prices down when they eventually go to market.

To help with this, Dabbagh said that municipalities should be bringing farmers together before each season to agree upon a cultivation plan for their area.

“There is also no good reason why municipalities are not organizing farmers’ markets, but they are under pressure from wholesale markets to stop such initiatives,” he added.

Not everything is low-cost, however, and there is no avoiding the fact that Lebanon’s agriculture sector has long been starved of investment.

The Central Bank last week decided to supply banks with $100 million to finance the import of raw materials for agro-food industries. With food imports exceeding $500 million annually, this money could perhaps be put to better use supporting small farmers.

“Why not help farmers to start up? When they’re planting, other industries work too, like transportation, cold storage and food processing. If we don’t offer start up money to farmers, we will keep the import policy, but there is no will to change it,” Dabbagh observed.

A possible silver lining of Lebanon’s ongoing financial collapse is that it has pushed the country’s agriculture sector to a crossroads. There is no shortage of bright ideas and initiatives nudging it toward independence. Whether or not the government chooses to listen to these voices is another question.

The Daily Star

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