Friday, November 30, 2007

Organic Lebanon

"The organic movement has gained remarkable momentum in Europe and the United States in the last decade, but in Lebanon the sector has become sluggish. "Certified organic foods make up 7 percent of Italian agricultural production, and 10 percent in Switzerland," Andrea Tamburini, the project coordinator for UCODEP, told The Daily Star. "In Lebanon the percentage is 0.2."

"The sector is completely stagnant," he added."

Yes it is stagnant Andrea, and you know why, of course, it is because we have entirely fabricated this sector. Farmers did not request it, it did not even come from consumer demand. It came from the project proposals of a group of well meaning, perhaps, but certainly project-eager development "specialists", people whose main task is to think: where can we go next, because there is money (and in this case mostly from USAID) to fund projects in the agricultural sector, especially projects that would result in produce of an exportable nature. I know what I'm talking about because i was among the first people to write such a proposal and obtain funding, first from an IFAD/WB/Lebanese government and then from USAID to implement it. My funds were relatively limited, but USAID gave millions to the organic sector in Lebanon through World Vision.

In spite of the $millions spent, organic never really picked up. In spite of our marketing acrobatics, and the creation of a community supported agriculture program tailored to lebanese demand (meaning you have to give subscribers all kinds of fruits and vegetables year round, which goes contrary to the essence of CSA, but then again Lebanon is a country where McDonalds have valet parking), in spite of that, I would estimate that the organic market in lebanon is in the order of $500,000 a year, and, worse, that it has not grown for at least 2 years.

There are many problems with the organic sector, and I could go on for a while, but there is one good thing: Most of the organic produce from Lebanon is sold locally. We have sent
small consignmentsto Dubai and Bahrain , World Vision is also doing that, but it is only economically feasible if it is heavily subsidized by development money. Subsidies take many forms, some farmers get direct subsidies in the form of inputs like drip systems, others get their certification paid for, etc... In Egypt and Tunisia and Morocco, organic production is much more important than Lebanon, but the produce is immediately exported to the UK or France, and the farms are industrial production systems. This is one of the great issues in organic today: should you plant for export, when the people cannot access clean food? How organic is it if you account for the food miles? How accessible is international organic certification to small farmers? Who is eating the organic food? Is organic monoculture (strawberries in egypt) acceptable? and many many other questions.

Organic farming, whether one takes it seriously or not, was initiated primarily as a philosophical movement, based on the respect of natural cycles in order to conserve the land. It was NOT created to provide pesticide free foods to those who can afford it. Let this be known.

PS: I ran a survey a few years back on why did people buy organic food in Lebanon. The options were: 1. to protect your health, 2. To protect the environment and 3. to help small farmers 9who were the target group of our program). 85% said for own health, 14% said environment and 1% said help to small farmers.

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