Thursday, June 21, 2007

O Lebanese, if only you knew what you eat

An open letter from Antoine Howayyek, head of the Organization of Lebanese Farmers to the (resigned) Minister of Agriculture Talal Sahili (Amal Movement, Opposition, Shi’a), or to acting Minister Joe Sarkis (Lebanese Forces, pro-government, Maronite), or to whoever may be in charge of the country.

Howayyek is asking: why are there no standards and no controls over the quality of the imported food products: fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products? Why does the ministry not do its job and operate or outsource the quality control at the borders? A letter was sent to the minister over a year ago, but no reply was received.

Howayyek makes the following points:

  • The Arab Free Trade agreement was implemented on 1/1/05. The agricultural calendar was almost eliminated, and subsidized food imports from Arab countries flowed freely in Lebanon. Fuel oil in Syria costs 12.5 cents per gallon and in Lebanon it costs 65 cents per gallon. This and other subsidies result in a cost of production in Lebanon that is often 50% higher than elsewhere.
  • The anti-dumping laws, although allowed by WTO, are not implemented in Lebanon.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture does not operate any inspection or control on quality of food imports at the borders.
  • The consumer’s office in the Ministry of Economy and Trade is inexistent.
  • There is no way to know the origin of products sold in the Lebanese market. Most products are imported and yet sold as originating form Lebanon. Each year, 5000 tons of white cheese is imported and sold as Lebanese cheese. Lebanese law states that products have to be sold in their original packaging.
  • The borders do not have adequate locations for inspections nor do they have sufficient number of trained inspectors.
  • A meeting was held in February 2006 in the ministry of agriculture, and it was agreed to enforce existing regulations.
  • Since then nothing materialized. Produce still enters Lebanon freely, whatever its quality. We have become a good market for bad quality produce that cannot be exported other than to Lebanon, because we enforce no standards and no controls.
  • The questions Howayyek asks: Why does the government not take the necessary measures to protect the Lebanese citizen and to protect farming, and give it a chance to grow and develop? Who benefits from this intentional negligence?

I have a couple of things to say about this issue: I was adviser to the (resigned) minister of agriculture Talal Sahili and I worked with him for a brief period before resigning softly from my post (by stopping to go to the ministry). I had been the adviser to the previous minister too and had “softly resigned” too (by the way this is an unpaid assignment) because of the inefficiency and the lack of will in the government to seriously address agriculture. This time, I decided to try to do something, just one thing that could impact farming positively at the level of policy and its implementation.

I invited a small group representing the farming supply chain: One food industrialist, one medium scale farmer, and one large farmer/trader. I asked them: what is the single most important action this ministry could take to support agriculture without giving direct subsidies? They all agreed it was the control of the quality of the imports at the borders. We met several times with the people in charge of this file in the ministry and the minister even graced us with his presence once. Everybody was positive, but nothing happened. Why? As far as I could fathom, these are the reasons:

  1. There are no facilities at any of the borders for inspection, no staff (qualified or not), and no system. There needs to be serious investment in staff recruitment, training, and in the creation of facilities. But the Saniora government would not disburse any money for that.
  2. There is no consumer bureau in Lebanon. I mean there is one and the director is my friend, but it is inoperative. It does not have enough staff to check the quality in 1 shop a day. So they just let it go, waiting for things to change. A project for capacity building of the consumer office has been implemented in 2007, but without resources to recruit and operate, this is all money wasted on consultants.
  3. The government in Lebanon does not in any way want to be perceived as hindering imports. They are worried that quality control could be perceived as non-trade tariff barriers (which they are of course, but this is the way our produce is treated every where).
  4. The government of Lebanon does not want to promote local consumption of locally produced goods. Most of the development projects they endorse are designed to enhance export (Export-plus, the EU’s Agricultural Development Project, USAID’s agricultural development projects). Even the Geographic Indicators project (in which I am a consultant to the Swiss implementing agency) has been suffering from this. Instead of being a project to support local recognition of Lebanese products as it is everywhere else in the world, the Ministry of Economy and Trade wants it to be directed at exports only. Nowhere else in the world has there been a Geographic Indication that has been successful abroad before being successful locally. If the name “Kfarfila Sweet Onion” is not recognized and demanded and protected in Lebanon, how can it mean something to a customer in, say, Britain?

I am often told: you always complain about the government not supporting agriculture in Lebanon, and you never give any alternative that is realistic and viable. My answer is that it all depends on what you mean by realistic and viable. The starting point of any discussion on development and trade, especially for food and farm products has become the free market and unbridled competition. It is now our given. This is the greatest achievement of neo-liberal economist: free trade and ultra liberalization have become the grand narrative which has to be satisfied in quasi-religious manner and which precedes any other goal. You want to fight poverty? Fine, but it has to abide by market rules and to be translated into monetary terms. Mohammad Younis of Grameen bank has been given the Nobel because he has shown that the poor are bankable, according to market rule. You want to conserve the environment? Good for you, so start showing that it makes financial sense, otherwise don’t count on any support. So we invent economic methods of the most ludicrous type to commodify the environment, like the polluter pays principle or carbon credits, which allow us to keep polluting as long as we can pay for it.

But local farming is and should be different. I have written why before. There is much more to farming than economics and money. Like there is much more to art or beauty than money. People may want to eat local, because it reaches somewhere deep inside their soul, a place where what has neither utility nor efficiency can still find a place (Not my words, these are Romain Gary’s).

Any government, even the weakest, can do something about supporting local food systems, even without taking protectionist measures (in which there is no shame). The first and foremost action is to “bridge the information gap” that is to impose on vendors to tell the truth about the origin of the products they sell. This way, we can have the choice to purchase produce according to its origin, and to pay a premium if we so wish. This is NOT difficult to implement. This is much easier than imposing VAT or creating Solidaire, believe me. But the problem is that this government will not lift a finger to support the productive side of the economy, or to interfere with trade. Supporting local production through identifying origins may be the first step of something bigger, like food quality criteria. Imagine if we took a decision to clearly label GMO-containing foods. There goes US grain, US junk food, US soybean oil, and US confectionary. The bulk of our food import bill. Now the US masters will NOT be very happy with that, will they?


Ms Levantine said...

I was talking to a US businessman in IT, and he was telling me how he was dealing with all gov. in the M-E, except for the Lebanese.

I started explaining the usual BS about regional and local situation in light of latest developments...
He interupted me and said: where there is a will there is a way.

In Leb. there is zero gov. will to help agri., it is that simple. There is a will for VAT, Solidere, real estate, tourism projects, banking secrecy... because they generate funds that can line the right pockets.

I admire you for trying to get us interested in farmers and potatoe (Quail spelling) crops. May the force be with you.


Bedouina said...

It's maddening in fact. The solutions are within our reach but the political will is not there. We have similar paradoxes in the USA. Crazymaking.

I have printed out the article on smallholder farms from May 2007 to read in "hard copy." Thank you for linking again.