In Lebanon, small-scale farmers are struggling to survive
The economic collapse in Lebanon and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic have affected the agricultural sector in Lebanon, which has negatively affected food security and job creation.
Despite receiving assistance from international organisations, small farmers continue to face several hurdles and trade-offs.
Small-scale farming on the verge of collapse
Mohamad Taleb, a young farmer from the Bekaa region, had initially planned to use his considerable expertise from experiences in Qatar and China to invest in a poultry farm. Despite a successful launch in 2018, four years later Mohamad's business ceases to operate.
"It will prove challenging to solve the multi-dimensional challenges that the agricultural sector currently faces, but a sustainable approach may provide some financial autonomy for small family farmers"
"The farm became a burden. Due to the increase in fodder, electricity, packaging material and feed, I wasn't able to make any money," Mohamad explained to The New Arab.
"Prices are controlled by the Mafia, so we as small-scale farmers cannot cope with increases in resources," he adds. At the same time, the smuggling of agricultural goods from Lebanon to Syria has increased, which further prevents Mohamad from adjusting his prices.
"The support program provided by the Ministry of Agriculture in 2021 only prolonged the inevitability that the farm would close. It didn't go nearly as far as I would have liked to solve the roots of the problem," concluded Mohamad.
As a result, Mohamad has shifted his production to a seasonal crop plantation and uses an irrigated farming system, hoping that it will compensate for his loss.
Meanwhile, Elias Sfeir, a 51-year-old farmer who works in plant production is also struggling to maintain production levels. Elias has taken a loan to buy cattle, but he can no longer afford the costs associated with keeping his cattle.
"I only received one-time assistance of fodder from the Ministry of Agriculture. Big government assistance is usually seized by the big-time traders," the farmer claims.
“Worse still, the electricity crisis in the country and increase of fuel prices has resulted in water scarcity issues, which creates difficulties in product transportation from the producer to the marketplace," Elias concludes.
Emergency Response for a multifaceted crisis
Small farming holds a key role in reducing poverty and improving food security. These production units are characterised by their small size, and a workforce mostly based on manual work from family members (mainly men and women in their fifties).
The small family farmer can have a subsistence purpose or commercial activity which justifies the need for intervention from humanitarian and development organisations such as the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
These agencies aim to empower small family farmers through developing their capacities, providing individual equipment and materials and other required assets and inputs, including cash assistance and technical services such as land rehabilitation as well as access to output markets.
In particular, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Lebanon, in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and other relevant ministries has been putting small family farmers at the centre of its interventions, through cooperative enhancement and promoting sustainable agricultural practices.
"Since 2019, Lebanon has faced a major economic and financial crisis which has seriously affected the agricultural sector"
On May 2021, the World Bank assigned a sum of USD $10 million toward the road and employment project that was expected to cover 26,700 smallholder men and women farmers.
According to the FAO Representative to Lebanon, Nora Ourabah Haddad, “The small-scale farmer’s support program was implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture with the support of FAO to provide small family farmers vouchers worth USD $300 for the purchase of agricultural inputs."
She adds that 28,745 farmers who met the eligibility criteria have been selected to benefit from the project.
"FAO also supported the voucher scheme implemented by the World Food Programme (WFP) under a European Union funded project, which supported 3,554 farmers who received e-vouchers redeemable with plant production inputs," she continues.
“The project is an emergency response to mitigate the immediate economic and financial consequences of the multifaceted crises Lebanon is facing, including the COVID-19 pandemic. This intervention was timely in responding to the pressing needs of small family farmers in accessing inputs to support their agricultural production and other farming activities, preserving and strengthening domestic production and strengthening value chains as well as mitigating short-term risks. Ultimately, this intervention contributes to boosting the local economy and sustaining livelihoods,” Nora explains.
A structural crisis
Since 2019, Lebanon has faced a major economic and financial crisis which has seriously affected the agricultural sector. The currency depreciation causes a gap between revenues and production costs, especially with the high dependency of Lebanon on food imports.
As most agricultural inputs are imported, the productive capacity of the sector is particularly affected by the increasing input costs resulting from the rapid devaluation of the Lebanese Pound in the black market and the disruption of imports.
Furthermore, COVID-19 containment measures have had a significant impact on the market for agricultural inputs, and the pandemic has caused a substantial decline in the availability of agricultural labour.
However, the impacts of last year’s Saudi ban on Lebanese produce were largely offset by an increase in exports to Egypt as well as more fruit exports to Europe.
These challenges are further aggravated by the lack of institutional support, and access to credit from the banking sector, while levels of public expenditure on agriculture remain very low accounting for less than one percent of total government national expenditure since 1995.
"COVID-19 containment measures have had a significant impact on the market for agricultural inputs, and the pandemic has caused a substantial decline in the availability of agricultural labour"
The potential of sustainable agriculture in Lebanon
It will prove challenging to solve the multi-dimensional challenges that the agricultural sector currently faces, but a sustainable approach may provide some financial autonomy for small family farmers.
For instance, small-scale farmers could acquire the competencies and capacity of generating their own resources by mastering a sustainable farming system without compromising the ability of future generations.
Successfully implementing such a system is a sustainable achievable goal in the long term, as the farmer would get rid of his dependence on imported pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
This would also have a positive impact on the environment, with cleaner and healthier air and soil, with a production based on renewable energy and high-quality farming product that could be sold in the market without constraint.
Ali Ibrahim is a Lebanese agricultural engineer and journalist, specialising in reforestation and plant production.
Follow him on Twitter: @Aibrahim88