Sunday, May 6, 2007

Interesting comments string you may have missed

I'm posting here a series of comments on a post of May 2 by my friend Ms Levantine and my answers.
Ms Levantine said...

Holy Ashrafieh! Quoting John Cale now? Are you trying to get me on your side?Regarding your previous posts (Fawwaz Traboulsi and such), the 70's are over, Lebanon has changed and so has the world around us. Turns out God is not dead but Karl Marx is.
I think Souk el Tayyeb is amazing, but if the big corporations have a plan to exploit us, we should have a plan to defeat them. The crunchy granola/organic farmer of the world unite and takeover/kiss my Bierkenstock stuff is great but of limited use.According to the DS article, Youmna Ziade won the prize for best organic products. If am not mistaken her father was the MP from Keserwan. Not exactly representative of the rural masses.
If we have a comparative advantage for quality agri. products in Lebanon we need to insure quality control, come up with branding and start advertizing in countries with Leb. communities. You have to take a page from the conglomerate game book, fight fire with fire. The part on organic agri. fostering peace, love and understanding is great, but that and a token will get you on the subway.
As you pointed out, Italian specialized agri. took off in the 60's with aggressive branding and marketing. To this day, most of their wines and olive oils are ntg to write home about.
Time to get to the next level before we are gobbled up. Don't forget that fear is man's best friend.
May 2, 2007 9:54 PM

Rami Zurayk said...

I wrote a long reply, but somehow the blog swallowed it. In brief, it said the following:
1. I knew the Cale bit will make you flip, I thought about you when writing it.
2. I fully realize the limited impact farmers markets have on the big picture, but at least the granola types are nice. In a place like Lebanon today, trust me, you need as much nice as you can get.
3. About exports: I've written about this before. You use (my example) of Italy. True, but Italy is given as an example of a success that was not centrally planned. Easy to believe, you know the Italian governments. People got on doing their little things, and before you knew, they had sold balsamic vinegar to the world. But remember two critical advantages they had: a) Subsidies, subsidies and subsidies, and b) their products were successful in Italy before being exported. Quality control and all the rest was implemented in Italy first because of local consumers demand. Demand on specialty products grew in Italy before moving out. In Lebanon, people are moving away from the local diet. If the Lebs stop eating their own products, why should the rest of the world consume them? If we stop eating shanklish (great cheese) why should the rest of the world want it? If the French did not eat Camembert, would the world import it? I doubt it. Gastronomy alone is not enough, although it is an important asset. Perhaps Lebanon's true competitive advantage. That and the diaspora. But the locals must want it first: they are the people who keep the food culture alive and evolving.
May 3, 2007 3:51 PM

Ms Levantine said...

Do you really think Lebanese are moving away from their local food? Forget the Monnot/Gemmayzeh/Downtown axis, what do people eat at home? Hamburgers? Yakhneh sounds closer to reality.We have been touring the country for a while, what did we eat in Denniyeh, 'Ainata, Adonis' village, Douer, Tripoli, Saida? Western supermarket foods are conquering the world, but they have not won yet.
Central gov. and subsidies are not as important as they used to be. An Indian dentist from New Jersey has been lobbying to raise the ban on Indian mangoes in the US, and he succeeded, it is front page news here.I might be mistaken, but it seems to me that all the pieces of the puzzle to support small growers are available, but we need to put them together. Stick Haifa Wehbe smiling with a bottle of Leb. olive oil on a few bilboards in Dubai and watch the result. It might not be PC for some people, but it would work.
And my reply is:
We're not too far from each others, but...
1. About the erosion of local foods. Sure, Lebanon is not New York yet, but look at our foods imports bill, several folds higher than the value of what we produce. Origin of the imports: US, France, Germany. Surely we are not importing yakhneh (local Lebanese stews). And while our street food is stil doing OK (shawarma, falafel), it is quickly being replaced with fajita and quick burgers. The traffic jam on Bliss street any time of the evening can prove that.
More importantly: many of the rural food stuffs are disappearing. Freek, the smoked green wheat that is cooked like rice, but is much healthier, is now mostly imported from Syria. The demand on it is low. The peasant cheeses, like serdaleh and ambariss and darfieh have also almost dropped out of the table. Here's the importance of Souk el Tayyeb and the slow food connection by the way (and of NGOs work, among them the Moawad Foundation), because this last October Darfiyyeh became a Slow Food presidium (check the slow food site for details about presidiums). Through the SEAL-funded program in South Lebanon, we are also working on identifying and re-popularizing food products that risk disappearing, latest is the Jrish Milleh, a flat crunchy pancake made from coarsely crushed whole wheat, burghul, whole sesame and oil. It used to be carried by travellers who went to Mecca in camel caravans, and had to take food with them for several weeks, because the Jrish milleh does not spoil and remains fresh for weeks. We're also doing that with other products. here too, Souk el Tayyeb is important as a venue because it offers the initial marketing step. When the demand increases (if there is demand) then other marketing channels can be explored.
2. I like your bit about "taking a page from the conglomerate book..." I adapted it: "Take a page from the corporate book and use it to fan the fire to fight them" How's that as a sound bite?
3. Please do not try to convince me that the dentist from New jersey changed the trade relations between India and the US single handedly. India is politically aligning with the US, and small (reversible) rewards of this sort are good for publicity. But the public loves the bit about one individual changing the world in isolation from global politics and trade relations. Part of the American dream.

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