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Big challenges to agricultural sector and food security in Lebanon because of government neglect


Al Akhbar published a report last week about the state of agriculture sector in Lebanon and the key challenges it is facing as a result of high cost of production, monopoly of traders and unfavorable international trade agreements.  The report also referred to food security which, according to the former Minister of Agriculture, Hussein Hajj Hasan, is of an utmost importance, and which he defined as the right of every individual to healthy food, in adequate quantities, and according to his/her material means. Furthermore, the former Minister noted that food security in Lebanon is non-existent and that the biggest challenge to both agriculture and food security results from the fact that out of 1.1 million hectares of exploitable land in Lebanon, only 360,000 hectares are actually prone to easy planting, while the total area actually planted do not exceed 280000 hectares of which, only 32% is irrigated.

The report highlighted the small size of agricultural land parcels, which is also a key problem, according to agricultural expert Basam Hamdar, who is also the chair of economics at the American University of Science and Technology.  According to the expert, agricultural land is divided into 195,000 parcels, of which more than 50% have an area of less than 5 dunums (1 dunum = 1000 m²), whilst only 13% of 20 dunums and above.  The small size of land parcels hinders mechanization thus lowering agricultural productivity which does not exceed 25% of that of the European Union and 50% of that of other Arab countries for the same crops.

Hamdar added that the agriculture sector in Lebanon has been subjected to political marginalisation since independence and contribute today, to no more than 5% of the GNP and accounts for 6% of the total labour force. Of those involved in agriculture, 70% are engaged in other economic activities since income from agriculture is insufficient to meet basic livelihood needs.  To be noted that 60% of the farmers produce for the market and the rest for their own consumption.  Other then the high cost of production, partly resulting from the present monopoly control of traders over imports of fertilizers, pesticides, etc, marketing also poses a serious problem for food security. As a result of all the preceding factors, middlemen are reaping most of the benefits while small farmer receives a very small proportion of no more than 20%.

Hamdar also stressed the important role that the state can play through the creation of a special bank for agricultural credit open for investors from both the private and public sectors, and in order to meet the financial needs of farmers particularly for long term loans with small interest rates. Furthermore, he suggested providing farmers with various incentives such as subsidizing the cost of utilities, tax waivers for the first five years of start up agricultural projects.  He also pointed out to earlier attempts by the Ministry to provide support to agriculture through collaboration with Central Bank and the Bankers Association but with limited success and the only outcome of these efforts was in securing subsidised loans through Kafalat.

Minister Haj Hassan noted for his part that the responsibility for the present abysmal situation of the agricultural sector falls on governmental economic policies for the past twenty to thirty years that were largely unfavorable to the agricultural sector. He particularly pointed out to the wrong decision of opening the local market to foreign products in implementation of unfair trade agreements such as the Arab common market agreements.  He added that the burden to reinvigorate the sector cannot only fall on the Ministry, thus calling for concerted efforts amongst all concerned Ministries and for complimentarity with the neighboring countries.

On the other hand, the president of the Lebanese Farmers Association, Antoine Howayek, noted that the situation of the Lebanese agriculture is not expected to improve unless some serious measures are taken such as: the setting up the of a national bank for agricultural development, regularly reviewing the calendar of agricultural imports, protection of national production and the setting up of a national institution for insurance against climate hazards.  He further recommended the separation of the Chamber of Agriculture from that of Commerce and Industry, and the creation of the agricultural cadastre. He added that all political parties had signed up to these recommendations which came out of the social and economic forum organised by the European Union in Lebanon back in February 2009.  Finally, Howayek reminded that earlier governments repeatedly refused to set up an agricultural bank under pressure from financial and trade oligarchies. Thereafter, the proposal was reduced to a mere collaboration protocol between the Ministry of Agriculture and Fransabank first, and then between the Ministry and the Bankers Association in which the Ministry serves as a mere broker between the farmers asking for loans and the lending banks.
Source: Al-Akhbar 15 February 2014

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