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Lebanese apple crisis… a season threatened

Farmers in dire straits as government seeks a way to secure alternate export markets

Published: Updated:

“We sell apples to buy bread,” this was one of the slogans Lebanese farmers shouted in their day of rage aimed to put pressure on officials to find solutions for exporting their apple produce.

From blocking roads to throwing apples or distributing them for free, the farmers raised their voices to better convey the predicament they have reached as 150 million tons of production remained at their farms.

On Thursday, October 6, the government decided to pay $3.33 (5,000 Lebanese pounds) as subsidy for every 20 kg of apples, while farmers asked for LBP 8,000 initially.

More than 750,000 boxes of apples are stacked in farms in different regions of the country. The closed borders with Syria have created a major obstacle for Lebanese agricultural products to reach their major destinations in the GCC. Moreover, finding alternative markets was not an easy job.

Sources close to Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb told Al Arabiya English they did not believe there is an “apple crisis” in the country. “It is all about greedy traders who want to buy the production at extremely low prices,” the sources stressed. A kilogram of apples is sold in some supermarkets for $1.67 (LBP 2500), while at wholesale level it is sold for $0.3 (LBP 500).

In a press conference, Chehayeb announced positive results in discussions with Egypt, which expressed interest in buying 50,000 tons of apples compared to 38,000 tons in previous years.

The minister also announced that Russia has agreed to reduce tariffs on each ton of apples from $250 to $66.
Apple exports to Jordan are expected to begin on October 18.

Positive step

Ibrahim Tarshishi, head of the Agriculture Syndicates Union in Bekaa, told Al Arabiya English the step taken by the government was positive despite being late. He said: “A late decision is better than never. But we require additional steps to sell the production.”

According to Tarshishi, 30,000 farmers live on the income from selling apples.

“We have two types of apple now, the first is the type that was affected by the cold weather last winter, the outer layer is affected but the fruit is good. A 20 kg box of this kind is priced at LBP 5,000,” he explained.

“The second type is one of the best in the Middle East and the price of a 20 kg box ranges from LBP 8,000 to LBP 12,000,” he added.

Tarshishi said 7,500,000 boxes of apples are ready for export and believed that the $25 million in subsidies offered by the government are not enough but are a way to help farmers at least take care of their farms without going bankrupt.

“We do not expect large amounts to be exported to Jordan, and we assure the public that there is a crisis. We do not accuse traders of creating this problem because if that was the case then they would have come to buy up the production. But this didn’t happen,” he said.

“Out of 150,000 tons we only managed to export 14,000 tons so far,” Tarshishi explained.

The Lebanese government has launched an attempt to convince humanitarian agencies which work with Syrian refugees to buy a part of the total production and distribute it to the refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere, but this path has not led to any inked agreements so far.

Standard pricing

Economy Minister Alain Hakim called on the government to set the standard selling price for a box of apples at $5. Hakim also discussed the crisis with an EU delegation and called on European nations to use Lebanese apples for jam and juice production.

The Agriculture sector generates around 4.7 percent of Lebanon’s GDP and employs roughly 10 percent of the Lebanese labor force, and is the fourth largest employer in the country.

Apples account for 23 percent of total fruit production in the country.

Fadi Ibrahim, a farmer who grows apples among other fruits in Mount Lebanon, said in an interview with Al Arabiya English: “Our problems started when Nassib border point between Syria and Jordan closed. We lost our GCC market and exporting via airlines is extremely expensive for us and will result in a highly priced product for the end customer, thereby losing our competitiveness.”

“Exporting via shipping lines is not suitable for all products, especially fruits,” he added.

Ibrahim asked the government to take protective measures against imports of different agricultural products. “It is not acceptable that we seek ways to export products, while we import similar ones.”