Lebanese emergency agriculture plan leaves questions unanswered

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A leaked draft “Emergency Plan” to improve Lebanon’s food security during the coronavirus pandemic is not enough to help those living under the poverty line, experts say. In the crisis-struck country, the number of those living below the poverty line is increasing.

The 20-slide presentation from Lebanon’s cash-strapped Agriculture Ministry recommends that the government provide in-kind aid to farmers worth around 400,000 Lebanese lira ($133 at the official exchange rate), import major cereals directly from producing countries, and increase domestic cereal production.

But in Lebanon, access to food is a far bigger problem than supply, according to experts. The cost of buying essential foodstuffs – including basic items such as rice, bulgur, pasta, beans, and sugar – increased by 28 percent between September and December 2019, according to the World Food Programme.

Read more, watch: A Lebanese farmer’s tale: Amid coronavirus, struggles to import supplies, prices rise

Inflation is a central cause of soaring food prices. Dollar shortages in Lebanon’s economy have caused the local currency to lose over half of its value in recent months.

By March, 45 percent of Lebanon’s population was under the poverty line. The loss of livelihoods during the coronavirus lockdown is likely to have pushed many more into food insecurity.

Statistics from the Ministry of the Economy and Trade show even more dramatic price increases for certain items. Since April 2019, the average price of garlic has risen by around 81 percent, while fava beans have risen by nearly 62 percent.

Too little, too late

The plan, seen by Al Arabiya English, suggests a campaign to increase high-value “cash crops” including fresh fruits and vegetables. In the medium term, small-scale farmers would receive loans for projects that can quickly turn a profit, such as fish farming.

“The strategic plan requires more time to be finished – around a month more work,” Lebanon’s Agriculture Minister Abbas Mortada told Al Arabiya English, adding that the envisaged time period for implementation would be five years.

The plan also includes a mechanism to increase wheat production, a critical product, even though one soil science specialist, Issam Bashour, said it was not enough to cover the country’s demand.

ag imports
ag imports

But there is a bigger snag. The Agriculture Ministry, which has been allocated a mere 0.35 percent of the 2020 state budget, largely overlooks how the most vulnerable communities will receive sufficient nutrition during this time of crisis.

“The plan lacks any nutrition-related goals,” explained a community nutrition specialist at the American University of Beirut, who preferred not to be named.

“[The plan] addresses increased local production, but there is no mention of what could be done at the consumer level to improve their food choices, reduce panic buying and ensure that the food that is being produced is nutritious as well as accessible,” they continued.

Financial Security or Food Security?

Meanwhile, the local currency’s swift devaluation means that the ministry’s pledge to help farmers is less generous than it looks, argues Lebanese activist Ghassan Makarem. Makarem is a member of SEAC, a collective promoting sustainable agricultural projects in rural and urban settings.

“400,000 L.L. is worth $100 now… I don’t think this amount is enough, especially if you want to start diversifying your products,” Makarem continued. “The problem with this kind of support is that it creates dependency and doesn’t provide farmers with enough to be able to continue on their own.”

Makarem believes that the ministry should instead focus on measures to help farmers become independent – such as reducing their reliance on imported pesticides.

“There was a crisis in the international and local food markets even before coronavirus. There has been absolutely no will by the government to even look at questions of sustainability and food sovereignty,” added Makarem.

According to the plan, Lebanon imported almost $300 million worth of agricultural inputs in 2019. Now, farmers must struggle against an unfavourable exchange rate to pay for the imports.

The plan recommends a mechanism to allow the government to open credits to cover the US dollar difference for farmers importing agriculture necessities, but it does not specify who would be directly responsible for this mechanism.

Without such consideration, even Lebanon’s farmers’ paltry local production will falter, adds Bashour, since “financial security and food security always go together.”

Under the plan, soft and hard wheat production would increase by 2,000 and 1,700 tonnes, respectively, to offset Lebanon’s high import dependency and counteract future upsets in the global supply chain.

Read more: Lebanon looks to India to satisfy its wheat demands

Lebanon’s current domestic wheat production only covers 10 percent of its almost 500,000 tonnes of yearly consumption.

Bashour, professor of soil science and plant nutrition at the American University of Beirut, believes that the suggested increase would do little to alter Lebanon’s reliance on cereal imports.

“Increasing wheat production, soft and hard, by a total of less than 4,000 tons will help a little but will not close the gap,” he told Al Arabiya English.

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