Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Lebanon's agricultural meltdown

Executive magazine

Mohamad Ajami's 65 bee hives overlook the Litani River Valley, with Jebel el Sheikh looming in the distance and to their immediate right, one of the south's historic landmarks, Beaufort Castle. Last year, Ajami had a bumper honey harvest, generating 650 kilos. He was optimistic that this year would be even better, purchasing extra hives and equipment in anticipation of producing one ton of honey. At $25 for a 900 gram jar, Ajami should have netted over $25,000.

But three months ago he started realizing all was not well. The winds had been continuously blowing from the east, dry, desert winds instead of the westerly winds that provide the right moisture and dew for flora to thrive, and for the bees to pollinate and produce nectar. Ajami also noticed that the bees were not multiplying, meaning he could not artificially swarm the bees and build up the number of colonies to have more hives.

That was when I realized something wasn't right,” he said. “And while the summer flowers did come there were no forager bees in the hives. Something did not encourage them to generate honey, something – beyond my understanding – that is beyond normal events.”

When it came to harvesting, Ajami's suspicions about a poor harvest were worse than he thought.

I only generated 50 kilos. It was not a harvest, it is solely for family consumption this year,” he said.

Ajami's experience is not a solitary one. Beekeepers throughout Lebanon have had a bad season, with rough estimates – in lieu of official statistics - of a 50 percent decline in production from an annual average of 200 tons. For Wadih Yazbek, a beekeeper and equipment distributor in Beirut, hardware sales are down 60 to 70 percent, indicative of the overall decline in the honey sector. “Beekeepers aren't needing the extra hives and secondly, with not a lot of honey, keepers are not keen on purchasing new extractors or filters,” said Yazbek.

It is not just honey production that has been affected by the unusual weather patterns Lebanon has witnessed over the past year, of abnormal precipitation in the winter and spring – on average the same quantity but occurring over half the number of days - and a heat wave smack bang in prime harvesting time.

Leaner times

Wheat production is down from 60,000 tons in 2009 to an estimated 35,000 tons this year, according to the Syndicate of Agrifood Traders. The United States Department of Agriculture's Foreign Africulture Service estimates, on the other hand, that Lebanon will produce 100,000 tons of wheat this year, a 23 percent drop from 130,000 tons grown in 2009. Green leafed vegetables have been frazzled by the sun, and fruits are ripening earlier than usual.

We've a lot of problems this year, particularly with grapes, olives, vegetables, apples, and potatoes,” said Elia Choueiri, head of department of plant protection at the Agriculture Ministry's Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI) in Tal Amara Station in the Bekaa valley.

In some areas, the olive harvest is down 50 percent, in other regions 30 percent, particularly in areas where olives trees were not irrigated or had supplemental irrigation. At two vineyards in the Bekaa, around 70 percent of the grapes were lost while vineyards at higher elevations have been affected, particularly white grapes.

The heat wave had an impact on the physiological status of the vine: a rapid increase of alcohol content because of the increased sugar content in grapes over a very short period,” said Carlos Adem, president of the Syndicate of Wines and Spirits. “In general, the year 2010 will not be one of the great vintages, like 2003 for example.”

In the north, trees have brought forth fruit but not enough leaves due to it not getting cold enough over the winter. Japanese plums are down 40 percent. Forest fires have also wrought damage.

Each plant has a life cycle, but are flowering before time, so the life-cycle is shorter. It's because of climatic change,” said Roula Faris, Middle East representative of the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL). “Leafed vegetables and herbs have flowered early due to the temperature, and they are unmarketable.”

While the Bekaa has had temperatures this summer of up to 45 degrees, it is the country's mountainous regions – where a significant amount of produce is grown, whether fruit trees or in greenhouses – that have not been as cool as normal.

For the first time in Lebanon, even the mountains are hotter than the coast,” added Faris.

On top of all this, phytoplasma diseases have affected stone fruits such as peaches and almonds, killing over 100,000 trees within three years. “This year we noted a new diffusion because of an insect vector. We have tested over 100 insects to find the pathogen, but don't know what kind of insect is spreading the disease,” said Choueiri. “Also, due to the hot weather, the activity of these insects is higher, and we've seen large infections of peach trees in the south and the Bekaa. The diffusion is getting higher year after year.” This year, LARI noted that a further 40,000 trees in the south have been affected by the phytoplasma which, curiously, is only affecting Lebanon and Iran in the region.

Give them bread

The extent of losses in the agricultural sector will not be fully known until harvesting is finished and the data collated. While early indications imply it has been a bad year, it has not been a total disaster, with some regions affected far more than others.

Furthermore, Lebanon has not experienced the drought that neighboring Syria has gone through over the past five years, which has hit agricultural output hard and affected the livelihoods of over one million people. But the reduced yields have come at a time of lower agricultural yields globally, particularly in fire-ravaged Russia, which has driven up global wheat prices, and the disastrous flooding in Pakistan, which has reduced rice cultivation.

Food prices are on an upward curve and Lebanon will be affected, being food import dependent to the tune of some 70 percent of total food consumption, according to the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Indeed, with wheat production in Lebanon down 42 percent, the government banned exports at the beginning of August, preventing a ship being loaded with 4,000 tons at the Beirut port from setting sail.

As Lebanon imports some 400,000 tons of wheat per year, the government has had to go to the international markets to purchase an immediate 50,000 tons, whether for strategic reserves or to regulate domestic wheat and flour prices.

With wheat prices at today's level, around $320 for a ton, flour should be around $450 per ton or more while the ceiling for bread prices was set [by the government] at a maximum of $320 for a ton of bread,” said Arslan Sinno of Dora Flour Mills and president of the the Syndicate of Agrifood Traders. “Someone must pay the difference, certainly not the millers nor the bakers, so either the consumer by liberalizing the price of bread - which may increase the pack price from LL 1500 ($1) to maybe LL1800 ($1.20) or LL2000 ($1.33) - or the state by subsidizing the wheat by about $200 per ton.”

If the government does up the wheat subsidy it will come at a heavy cost to the state's coffers. The alternative however is higher costs for the Lebanese populace and the chance of rioting, as happened in Beirut in January 2008, when rumors spread that bread prices were to spike.

The new agricultural plan

The agricultural sector as a whole in Lebanon is under invested, which has only compounded the losses due to the topsy-turvy weather this year. According to the Lebanese Farmers Syndicate, agriculture generated some $1.5 billion in gross revenues in 2009, but could generate $3.5 billion if there was sufficient infrastructure investment. Employing 20 to 25 percent of the workforce, according to research at the American University of Beirut, some 50 percent of rural families rely on agro-food production.

Climatic change clearly poses a threat to agriculture's potential and a good swathe of the populace for income generation. But agriculture's importance has finally come to the forefront in politics, with Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan releasing this year a four-year plan to address the sector's core problems.

As of this year, the agriculture ministry has started to be more active,” said Choueiri, adding that LARI has taken on a further 70 staff to improve research. “If you compared 10 years ago to today, our work has improved incredibly.”

Data on the agricultural sector is also being updated, with the last census on the sector released in 1988. FAO is carrying out a new census for the whole country, slated for release in October. “We've a horizontal project for synergy between all the ministries for efficiently developing the agricultural sector to help realize its potential,” said Ali Moumen, FAO representative in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, LARI and the Ministry of Agriculture have implemented a strategy to boost and retain production levels. “We are working on new varieties that support dry climatic conditions, such as introducing new apple varieties at an altitude of 700 meters instead of the old varieties of the Bekaa,” said Choueiri.

Farmers are being given codes for identification purposes in the event of disease, nurseries are being monitored, workshops are being held on growing and pesticide use, and a forecast service by LARI kicked off this year that sends text messages to farmers about disease and climatic change.

Organic agriculture, although very much in its nascence, is also improving, with the number of hectares rising from 250 to 2,465, and organic farmers from 17 to 331 since 2000. “Organic agriculture can reduce global warming as there is lower water usage, it increases biodiversity and improves soil fertility,” said Faris.

Improvements in the sector will certainly help offset climatic change, but for the immediate year ahead, much will depend on future temperatures and whether precipitation is better spread and rainwater retained. “If this year there is again hot weather over the winter period, it will be a big problem,” said Choueiri.

While the outlook is relatively upbeat – yet very much weather dependent – it is agriculturalists that will be feeling the bite this winter. For beekeeper Mohamad Ajami, the income he planned to live off has disappeared. “I'm really concerned about saving the bees for a harvest next year. Adding insult to injury, my whole land was burned as it was so dry and someone must have flicked a lit cigarette,” he said. “My focus was this line of work, but I'll have to do something else to survive the rest of the year.”

BOX - Check the label

Due to the poor harvest, the price of honey is to rise by $6 to $7 on a 900 gram jar, and there will be an increase in imports, said Rami Ollaik, professor of beekeeping at the American University of Beirut. An up-tick in fraud is already underway, with beekeepers buying cheap Chinese or Eastern European honey to pass off as local produce. Indeed, this is a widespread practice in Saudi Arabia, with brands purchasing second country honey and merely bottling it in the kingdom – real Saudi honey sells for $100 a kilo. Beekeepers may also dilute the honey with apple juice or fructose to keep price tags lower.

If anybody is selling honey at regular prices, there is a big question mark,” said beekeeper Mohamad Ajami. “At an agriculture store here in the south, I told the owner about my poor harvest and he said he could take me somewhere to buy honey to offset my losses, saying many beekeepers are buying from China or elsewhere.”

Such fraud will not work though when it comes to the country's distinctive honey types and the major producers. “Consumers are picky about honey,” said Ollaik. “There are only four big honey producers and they have established consumer confidence for oak, citrus and cedar honey. It has a characteristic taste, so to keep confidence they cannot mess with the quality.”

While climatic conditions have affected honey production, Ollaik said that it has only aggravated an already bad situation, with colony collapse disorder (CCD) present in Lebanon and no financial assistance from the government. “The production process in Lebanon is way below standards. If this was improved, we would increase competitiveness, lower costs and the hives would be less susceptible to changes in the weather,” he said. “But I don't know what's next, it's a challenge.”

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