SULTAN YAQOUB, Western Bekaa — In a shed on Najib Fares’ farm in the Western Bekaa, next to a broken-down tractor, sacks of unsold wheat from June’s harvest are piled up on pallets, a visible reminder of the collapse of some of the key systems set up to support local farmers and maintain the country’s food security.
In a normal year, the wheat would have been sold soon after the harvest in June. But this year, the government did not buy the wheat as it used to do annually under a program intended to ensure that the country has an adequate stock of grain.
Since exporting wheat is currently banned for the same reason, farmers unwilling to sell their whole stock at the low prices available on the local market were left with excess product on their hands.
It’s just one of the issues facing the Lebanese agriculture sector, amid government inertia and an ongoing economic crisis in the country.
“The situation is like we’re in a pool of mud, and we are sinking,” said Fares, who is the head of the wheat growers’ syndicate in the Bekaa and grows fields of wheat, onions, potatoes and other vegetables on the land he and his sister inherited from their father in Sultan Yaqoub.
The rising price of imports led to calls for increased local agricultural production earlier this year from political and cultural figures as divergent as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah — who called for an agricultural “jihad” — and director Nadine Labaki, who made a widely shared video promoting community farming initiatives.
But in practice, amid heated debate over whether and how to continue government subsidies on imported wheat and other essential goods — and despite a recently released national plan for beefing up the agriculture sector — the country’s agricultural production has largely fallen by the wayside.
The result, farmers and experts told L’Orient Today: many farmers are planting less or with lower-quality supplies, shifting to cheaper crops or, in some cases, getting out of the business entirely, with the likely result of a smaller harvest and higher prices for local products next year, even as Lebanon’s currency crisis has caused the price of imported food to skyrocket.
The dollar problem
Lebanese farmers rely heavily on imported seeds, fertilizers and other supplies, and like everyone else, their access to dollars has been curtailed by the country’s currency and financial crisis.
The recently released national agriculture strategy noted, “In the past, farmers would buy inputs on credit extended to them by input suppliers or wholesale and middle-persons, and repay after the harvest. Farmers, although used to rough economic conditions from the past, have been further pressed by lack of credit to purchase fresh inputs, being requested to pay old arrears, and having to purchase inputs in cash either at face value in USD or in LBP using [the] unofficial exchange rate.”
During last year’s fall planting season, which coincided with the beginning of the crisis, Fares said, “We bought on credit because the banks weren’t giving us our money, and we bought on credit when the dollar was at LL1,500. When the harvest came in June and July, we had to buy dollars at LL8,500 or LL9,000. It was a disaster.”
Meanwhile, he said, an agreement by the central bank to provide dollars for agricultural supplies at a rate of LL3,900 has not been widely implemented.
As a result, farmers unable to afford imported supplies have scaled back their planting this year, planted with the seeds they had saved from the last harvest, which may be lower quality than those they would normally purchase, and gone without fertilizer.
“There are people who were planting 100 dunums who are planting 10, while those who were planting 10 dunums stopped planting,” Fares said. In his area, where a large portion of the population has family ties to Brazil and Venezuela, some farmers have given up and traveled in search of work. For his part, Fares said he had reduced his planting by about half this season.
The case of wheat
Lebanon imports about 80 percent of the cereal products it consumes, including most of the soft wheat used for bread, while local farmers produce primarily the hard durum wheat used for pasta and some products used commonly in Lebanese cuisine, including bulgur and freekeh.
A law enacted in 1959 created the Directorate-General of Cereals and Sugar Beets, which was tasked with maintaining a stable supply of grains and bread. To encourage local production of wheat by protecting farmers from price shocks, the directorate was authorized to buy the wheat produced by local farmers at a price to be determined each year by cabinet decree.
Riad Fouad Saade, the director of the Lebanese Center for Research and Agricultural Studies (Centre de Recherches et d'Études Agricoles Libanais, or CREAL), noted that apart from the importance of having a stock of wheat on hand for food security, cereals are a key part of the annual crop rotation required to keep the soil healthy for other crops.
The subsidy program, he said, “was organized and supported in a way that the Lebanese farmers would be encouraged to plant cereals by fixing a fair purchasing price for the wheat and barley, a securing guarantee in a country like ours where everything is fluctuating.”
But over the past decade, the system began to break down, and over the past two years, it came to a complete stop. For the past seven or eight years, Saade said there were such lengthy delays in setting the price for the wheat that months after the harvest had passed, it still had not been agreed upon and the farmers had not been paid.
“Because you harvest in June, if the price is not fixed by May, we are in trouble,” he said. “If you are dealing with cars or with spare parts or with refrigerators or whatever is inert, there is no problem, but when you are dealing with nature, you are bound by dates and vegetative cycles.. The ignorance of our leaders was such that they just broke the system.”
And for the past two years, the subsidy was not given at all. Georges Berberi, the director-general of cereals and sugar beets at the Ministry of Economy, told L’Orient Today that in 2019, the subsidy had not gotten the final approval needed from Parliament, while in 2020 it was never even discussed by the Cabinet.
And now, he said, “In the absence of a new government, there are no discussions, so it will be months. Nobody will take a decision.”
In any case, since the government historically paid farmers in Lebanese lira at the official exchange rate, the amount it would offer farmers now is likely to be too low to meet their costs, and certainly well below the international market price.
Meanwhile, a program set up to harvest and distribute selected locally produced seeds also halted in 2020.
Berberi acknowledged that the stoppage of the subsidy program has been problematic both for the farmers’ bottom line and for the country’s food security. The government used to make sure it kept a two or three month supply of wheat in storage, but with the destruction of the grain silos in the Beirut port explosion, along with the lack of funds, he said there is “zero stock” now.
“For people’s security, we have nothing to give them in case of an emergency,” he said. “Let’s say we have a war, for instance, for one month. Where will we get the wheat? Where will we get the flour? Maybe some of it will be coming on ships and they will be banned from coming in. … It’s a very big problem.”
And he noted that the lack of the subsidy is likely to lead to reduced local wheat production.
“If the government will not buy, if they will not allow for them to export it, if they will not give subsidies because there is no money … why [should farmers] bother themselves and plant all this?”
Fares said the farmers had proposed to previous Economy Minister Raed Khoury that Lebanon should try to negotiate a deal with a European country under which the hard wheat produced in Lebanon would be exchanged for soft wheat produced abroad, so that the subsidies currently going to buying imported wheat would instead go to local farmers. Khoury was interested in the proposal, but after the former minister left, it went nowhere, he said.
The danger to food security
It remains unclear how much the crisis has actually impacted production to date. A satellite imagery analysis conducted last month by Hadi Jaafar, a professor of irrigation engineering and water management at the American University of Beirut, found a 10 percent reduction in the summer 2020 crop area in the Bekaa Valley compared to the previous year, but Jaafar cautioned that it is too early to predict the 2021 harvest.
Meanwhile, a recent report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization noted that Lebanon’s 2020 cereal crop harvest was an estimated 20 percent below the five-year average, despite favorable weather conditions. Specifically, the 2020 wheat harvest was estimated at 100,000 tons, compared to a five-year average of 130,000. FAO officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Saade disputed the FAO’s figures, saying that CREAL’s numbers, which showed considerably lower yields than the FAO, had actually found an increase in wheat production from 2019 to 2020 — from 50,813 tons in 2019 to around 70,000 in 2020, which is in line with the five-year average, according to CREAL’s numbers.
He added that the amount of wheat planted might increase further in the 2021 season, since wheat is cheaper to produce than vegetable crops like potatoes. (Fares said that, indeed, some farmers had switched over to wheat for that reason.)
While disputing the FAO numbers, however, Saade agreed that the current situation is problematic for Lebanon’s food security.
The potential shift from vegetables to wheat, he said, “isn’t good for anybody, because they go for the cheap crop, they have no selected seeds, so they have less yields and bad-quality wheat expected for the June 2021 harvest.”
Kanj Hamade, a development economist who recently wrote a report on Lebanon’s agriculture sector woes and proposed solutions, found that agriculture supply importers had reported a 40 percent decrease in sales from 2019 to 2020.
“Of course, when you have less input you should expect less-intensive production” and a resulting increase in the price of local produce, Hamade said.
As for the resulting impacts on food security, he said, “Is there going to be a famine? No, we will not have that, but people will eat less vegetables, will skip meals. … Access to food is becoming a concern on a daily basis.”
In the short term, he said, the Lebanese agriculture sector needs “subsidies, support to production, support to inputs, support to have a better use of inputs … in a more sustainable manner.”
But in the long term, he said, “If you don’t get out of the crisis at the national, macro level, you will not get out of the crisis for agriculture.”