Monday, June 30, 2008

Notes on the Lebanese terroir

This is the conference I was attending in France. I gave a talk (in French) on "The Lebanese terroir: cradle of elitist products or/and local development tool?". Here's an approximate translation of my talk:

Lebanon, unfortunately, needs little introduction. The country's unending wars has been heavily mediatized, to such an extent that the mere mention of the word "Lebanon" appears to elicit dramatic images of war, violence and destruction. Many of those I have met at this forum have told me, with a lot of empathy: "poor Lebanon".

A very appropriate description, because Lebanon is indeed a poor country.

According to a recent UNDP study, up to 40% of the Lebanese can be categorized as poor, with around 18% living in absolute poverty. Economic inequality is severe, especially in terms of access to resources: the GINI for land distribution is 68%, one of the highest in the world. 50% of the farmland is owned by just 3.5% of the farmers, usually absentee landlords uninterested in farming. About 10% of the people are rural, but in the poor districts like the Akkar in the north of the country, this can climb up to 70%. Poverty is mainly rural. Agriculture's share of the GNP is 6-8% but it is allocated less than 1% of the national budget, for reasons I will not go into right now.

Lebanon imports 80% of what it eats, mostly from the US and the EU. We are self sufficient in fruits and vegetables and in poultry, but we import nearly all the poultry feed, which places "self sufficiency" in a different context. Lebanon is one of the centers of origin of wheat, but it imports 80% of the wheat it consumes.

Lebanese cuisine, unlike Lebanese agriculture, is thriving, and this may well be the last chance of the farm sector. There are 3 cuisines in Lebanon: a street cuisine, a restaurant cuisine, and a home cuisine. Most of those whose eyes lit in this room at the mention of Lebanese food will have probably only ever tasted the street food and the restaurant food.

The 3 cuisines use a lot of traditional products. I say "traditional" not "terroir", because the notion of terroir as defined by this conference does not fully apply to all of these products. This is an issue that should later on be brought to discussion. However, in the rest of this talk, I will use the 2 terms interchangeably. Examples of these products include burghul, which has become an international product, some dairy products such as kishik, darfiyeh cheese and labneh, some breads such as markquq and tannur, molasses, flower distillates, and fat-preserved meat, qawarma. One must note, however, that all these products are common to the Levant, especially regions of Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.

Both rich and poor eat these products. In Lebanon, we do not organize conferences to save the terroir, we do not talk about it much; we just eat it. We figure this is the best way of preserving it. However, as the concepts of terroir and its association with fine foods and gastronomy evolves, the prices of some products is increasing. There are concerns that the prices may reach a point where they will only become accessible to the rich, and that the producers themselves will have to eat lower quality products in order to maximize cash income. In other words, our interest in terroir products may render them elitist. We need to devise ways to avoid falling into this trap.

Recently, a number of internationally funded projects have started to gather knowledge about Lebanon's traditional foods and to organize it in a way that is accessible to a wider audience, with a view to eventually use this information in rural development. The Geographic Indicators project funded by the Swiss government has identified more than 40 products of local renown and has carried out extensive studies on a handful of them. The Slow Food/ AUB project funded by the Italian government has created a database of 25 terroir products. More recently, the CIHEAM, with Italian government funds, has contributed to the publication of a Lebanese Traditional Food Atlas in both Arabic and English. Concurrently, the Italian government has also funded the creation of Earth Markets, which, in addition to existing outlets such as Souk el Tayeb, have contributed to creating an additional outlet for the marketing of some of these products.

The problem, however, remains to make the leap from studies and inventories to the use of the terroir products as catalysts of rural development and as a tool to close the inequalities gap. This is a process which, I believe, cannot be helped by donor's money. There are several reasons for that: one is the inherently short-term nature of donor funding which contradicts the long-term nature of the development process. Another is that donor-led projects are often very rigid while development requires tremendous flexibility and adaptability to very fluid conditions. These are classical problems to which more specific problems can be added such as the competence of international and local development staff, the political agendas of the players, and the amount of funds available.

If international development money is not the answer, then we will have to rely on local development effort, a "terroir" development. Those who have tried it (as I have) will tell you that they face, among others, the following problems:

  • Weak legislative and implementation frameworks for regulating the production aspects of the products.
  • Difficulties in collaborative work (coops, etc..).
  • Poor marketing channels and broken supply chains.
  • Limited "modern" know how which can help improving quality and productivity.

Many of these problems can be linked to the fact that the Lebanese the state has, a long time ago, resigned from its duties. These include technology transfer and farm extension as well as legislations and their implementations. Instead, the Lebanese state has traditionally relied on the private sector for catalyzing economic development. While this can lead to the accumulation of wealth, usually in the hands of a few, experience in Lebanon and elsewhere shows that the private sector rarely serves to improve the situation of the most vulnerable.

It appears from the experience we are seeing in France and in other countries, that the terroir, which was created by local men and women, needs an effective state structure in order to develop and to compensate those who have maintained it over the years. But not just any state: a secular and fair state, an accountable state, a state for all its citizens. And this is where the real problem of preserving the Lebanese terroir might lie.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Potato and wheat

Its the international year of the potato, not the international year of the potato producer. In Lebanon, large farmers (30-100 hectares) are irrigating 24 hours a day, and the cost of fuel is $24 per 20 liters. They need about 350 liters per day for every 10 hectares. And that is NOT counting the price of groundwater (free in Lebanon, although the water table has dramatically dropped). The 3 big farmers interviewed in this article are all expecting to all go to jail or to have to sell their lands to repay their loans. They are expecting a disaster: Saudi potatoes (heavily subsidized) will enter the (free) Lebanese market at the same time as their (unsubsidized) crop. But this is only a small part of the story: Large Lebanese traders have rented the potato cold stores. They will buy the crop at low prices and sell it in a couple of months or export it for up to 5 times the price.

Now wheat farmers face another problem: the government does not allow them to export wheat for strategic reasons, but it also wont buy their crops as it always did. As there are no silos, farmers cannot stock, and they have to get rid of their crops and pay back their debts. But the mills won't buy from them at international prices: why should they, as long as the government is subsidizing imported wheat, which they buy at artificially low prices?

Isn't this textbook stuff about "how to destroy your farm sector"?

Arab food crisis or Arab political crisis?

The Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut organized a small meeting on the food crisis in the Arab world. I have posted about it earlier, with a link to the main paper by Ibrahim Seif. Al-Akhbar covered the event and Hassan Shaqrani wrote about it yesterday. The first part of the Arabic article is about Seif's intervention, and the second, more interesting is by Lebanese economist Kamal Hamdan, who urges states and governments not only to support agriculture, but also to focus on strategic crops rather than on export crops. And he is right, but its a really long shot in Lebanon. Lebanon is based on maximizing profits in the shortest time possible, without paying any attention to what happens next. This is how politics are conducted, and this is how the economy has evolved. Both are unsustainable: look at the number of wars that have taken place. I believe that we cannot think strategically in any sector, and especially in agriculture without addressing the political framework all together. A few weeks ago I was on a TV show with Antoine Howayek who is trying to organize the sector and obtain some rights for farmers and farm workers. He said on the air that he was once told in private by a member of parliament: "Do you really think they will let you organize yourself? Tell me which politician is interested in seeing his or her constituency organized? Who is able to handle the emancipation of those who vote blindly in exchange for petty services?" (I am quoting this freely from memory).

This is why existing Arab governments cannot handle this or any other food crisis (and they are not trying to, believe me, they're making noises, subsidizing, impoverishing people further, and the oligarchy is trying to find out how it can squeeze more money out of the poor). They cannot handle them because what they are required to do would contradict the very essence of their existence. A basic law of systems is that no sub-system can grow independently of the larger systems that includes it.

The cruelest cuts

"America's best-selling meat comes in dozens of cuts and hundreds of further-processed forms, such as turkey hot dogs and chicken patties. It's a variety born of necessity, as historically thin profit margins have forced poultry producers to develop new products in their search for revenues.That strategy was accelerated a quarter century ago with the debut of chicken's most revolutionary product.

The McNugget.

In 1983, McDonald's introduced nationwide the bite-sized chicken pieces that were kid friendly, car friendly and presumably a healthy alternative to burgers (consumers didn't know they were fried in beef fat). Within two years, McDonald's was the second-largest chicken seller in the country, behind Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The launch ignited consumer demand for a diversity of poultry products, a trend that continues today.

It has not been good news for poultry workers' hand

"I don't know a single worker who doesn't have some sort of pain in their hand," Garcia says.

Says Garcia of his patients: "I get people who say, `Please don't tell them I went to my private doctor. If they find out, they will fire me.' "

It is this contradiction -- workers fretting about losing a harmful job -- that troubles the doctors on the fringe of the poultry business. For workers, the issue is often a simple equation: how much they can make versus how much they can bear." (Thanks Toufic)

Read the entire (excellent) article here. I sent it to a friend in Lebanon who is an occupational health specialist. I wonder what the status of the injuries is in Lebanon, where poultry is big business and there are a couple of large plants. There are also much larger plants in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, countries that are not known for respecting workers rights.

In spite of the decline in the world prices of wheat, Lebanon increased its subsidy on flour from $70 per ton to $ 100.


...and I'm back. Meanwhile, Al Akhbar published its weekly Badael page. My editorial: Nations or corporations? Rana Hayeck on the globalization of food and the role of large (US) corporations. A review of Chirine Yazbeck's Lebanese ecotourism book, and a short article on castor bean.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In France for a seminar on traditional foods. Will not blog for the rest of the week.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Water of love

"According to the 2008 Stockholm Water Prize winner, Tony Allan, the Middle East basically “ran out of water” in the 1970s and today largely depends on water from outside the region being traded into the region, primarily in the form of its food imports. Nevertheless, about 87% of the region’s freshwater is allocated to agriculture. Continued water scarcity will affect the region’s social and economic potential, increase land vulnerability to salinization and desertification, and raise the risk for political conflict around the limited water available. Still, arid zones are no less prone to violent behavior than states sharing water in water humid zones."

A document on Water and Conflict in the Middle East by the Human Security Gateway.

Remember the Dire Straits song? Read it in context

The food crisis in the Arab World

"Arab governments tempered public anger at rising food prices by increasing wages and subsidies, but their approach is not sustainable without raising taxes. Instead they should revise agricultural policies, expand social safety nets, and curb excessive energy consumption, argues Carnegie Middle East Center economist Ibrahim Saif.

Examining the response to the crisis by both oil-producing Gulf countries and populous non-oil exporting countries, Saif recommends sustainable alternative policies in his new commentary, The Food Price Crisis in the Arab Countries: Short Term Responses to a Lasting Challenge.

He concludes: “In the short run, there is no quick fix for the crisis created by rising food prices. Particularly in non-oil producing countries, there remains a real danger that people will take to the streets in increasing numbers when they see their livelihoods threatened. And in the Arab countries, the consequences of discontent and anger can easily acquire a geopolitical angle.”"

Links to the full text (pdf) here. I have not read it yet, but the key conclusions from the site do not appear to be specially novel or radical, but they would nevertheless be welcome.

Bad taste food

"Buns and Guns is made out to look like a military post and diners eat to the sound of gunfire instead of muzak.

Owner Yousef Ibrahim presents rebranded Lebanese favourites like the "rocket-propelled grenade" (chicken on a skewer) and "terrorist bread"."

semillas asasinas

"The Chihuahua farm leader's assassination is not the only death of a militant Latin American campesino being linked to Big Biotech's encroachments. In Parana Brazil about the same time Villareal was gunned down in Chihuahua, Keno Mota, an activist of the Movement of Landless Farmers ("Movimento de Sem Terras" or MST), affiliated with the international poor farmers coalition Via Campesina, was drilled by security guards during an action on an illegal experimental station under cultivation by the Biotech giant Syngenta - the Syngenta plot, adjacent to Iguazu National Park, a protected nature reserve, violated Brazilian strictures as to where such "semillas asasinas" can be planted.

Unlike Mexico, Brazil has few restrictions on GMO crops and indeed under social democrat president Lula da Silva, has become the second-largest GMO soybean producer on the continent. Neighboring Argentina is Numero Uno. Big Argentinean growers, who have been blocking that southern cone nation's highways in a dispute over tariffs on soy exports for weeks, have announced intentions to surpass the United States as the largest grower of genetically modified maize in coming years. Argentinean corn is grown exclusively as feed for the gaucho nation's cattle industry, a cornerstone of its agrarian economy." (Thanks Daniel)

Monday, June 23, 2008

Saudi subsidies

"Saudi Arabia will spend more than SR12 billion ($3.204 million) in subsidising food prices, on top of an estimated SR7.9 billion in indirect subsidies, such as water, electricity etc., according to an analyst.

"We take the view that the global food market is facing some unforeseen demand dynamics, which are exacerbated by unusually low food stocks and by the demand for biofuels in developed markets. In such a tight market, we believe that speculators thrive and push prices to new highs within the food commodity asset class. The less optimistic outlook does make Saudi Arabia more vulnerable, as one of the biggest rice importers in the world, in both absolute and per capita terms. After Iran and Iraq, the Kingdom is the third largest rice importer in the Middle East – and is the world’s biggest importer of Basmati rice.

"During the next decade, the Kingdom will move from being a net wheat producer to a wheat importer. Already Egypt, the biggest importer of wheat in the Middle East, imports about three times more wheat than is consumed annually in Saudi Arabia. But still, in a global market where wheat stocks have been in freefall since 1997, the Kingdom may face a demand predicament as a major wheat importer in years to come," said Sfakianakis."

The cost of cluster bombs

"This report aims to quantify the economic consequences of cluster munition contamination resulting from the 2006 conflict for the people of southern Lebanon and those organisations, institutions and states that provided assistance to them. The extent of cluster munition use during the 2006 conflict has been widely reported, as have the implications of that use in the context of international humanitarian law. This report stems from a desire to assess and quantify the cost of cluster munition contamination in three areas: the cost of agricultural land denial, the cost of clearance and the cost for victims. This report examines these three areas and posits estimated costs that have been incurred for each."

An extensive report of the human and economic costs of cluster ammunitions in South Lebanon: over $ 200 millions. I wrote about this a while ago.

Iraq to import grain from Canada

"Iraq, which imports 80 percent of its grain needs, said it agreed to buy ``huge'' amounts of wheat from Canada to diversify imports and build stockpiles after drought damaged crops in the Middle Eastern country.

The Middle Eastern nation passed a law to make it easier to attract foreign investments in agriculture and speed up payment for traders, Al-Sudani said in the statement.

Agriculture in Iraq, a country of 30 million people, has deteriorated after 13 years of United Nations sanctions that ended with the U.S.-led invasion.

Iraq's wheat output is expected to drop to 1.3 million tons in 2008-2009 from 2.3 million a year earlier while imports are forecast to rise to 3.7 million tons from 3.5 million, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.

Most of Iraq wheat imports come from the U.S., followed by Canada, the government said."

I have posted before about Iraqi agriculture (or what remains of it) and how the US and the free world (also dubbed the International Community) are putting their hands together to help Iraq become a nation totally dependent on imports of food and of farm inputs in which rural poverty will be a thing of the past as all the rural poor will have been exterminated.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Two reviews

"One of the ways to do this and at the same time help with the problem of so many people crowded into urban slums—the people most susceptible to food price increases—is to provide land through meaningful agrarian reforms. But land itself is not enough. Beginning or returning farmers need technical and financial support in order to produce food. Additionally, social support systems, such as cooperatives and community councils, need to be developed to help promote camaraderie and to solidify the new communities that are developed. Perhaps each community needs to be “seeded” with a sprinkling of devoted activists. Also, housing, electricity, water, and wastewater need to be available to make it attractive for people living in the cities to move to the countryside. Another way to encourage people to move to the country to become farmers is to appeal to patriotism and instill the idea that they are real pioneers, establishing a new food system to help their countries gain food self-sufficiency, i.e., independence from transnational agribusiness corporations and provision of healthy food for all the nation’s people. These pioneering farmers need to be viewed by themselves, the rest of the society, and their government as critical to the future of their countries and the well-being of the population. They must be treated with the great respect that they deserve."

An extract of the very good review of the food crisis by Fred Magdoff in the Monthly Review. I found it in The Pluralist Economics Review, which is very good, thanks to RobG.

Dignity living

"UGANDA is to benefit from $100m contribution by Kuwait to support food production and agri-businesses development, James Mugume the permanent secretary in the foreign affairs ministry has said.

The fund, known as "Dignity Living," was launched in April during the World Islamic Economic Forum held in Kuwait. Its aim is to address global food shortages.

The Emir of Kuwait provided the money to promote agriculture in arable countries so that they could export to Middle East states.

The world, including oil producing countries, is facing high commodity prices due to food shortages.

"The fund will enable food producers to commercialise agriculture and produce more items for export.""

See previous post and reference therein...

Sachs warns

The high-profile economist Prof Jeffrey Sachs says plans by Gulf countries to invest in developing world farms could be “win-win” for both sides, but cautions that the schemes could end in “disaster” if the focus is solely on profits.

"Prof Sachs, the director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said East Africa and other cash-strapped regions could produce enough cereals and meats to feed the UAE and its food-importing neighbours.

But he urged the region’s leaders to help sustainable development rather than chase profits by turning vast tracts of purchased land into mechanised factory farms.

“The idea of the Middle East buying food – not only grains but also meat – from the pastoral regions of East Africa is a real economic opportunity that could work, but it has to be done in a way, I believe, that is sensitive to people’s rights and their economic needs,” said Prof Sachs.

“That means with a lot of focus on smallholders and aggregating smallholders into farmers’ co-operatives, which can be an interface between the small producer and the world market.”
Prof Sachs, an adviser to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, said unethical agricultural investment had seen “smallholders pushed aside” by “big commercial projects and mechanised plantations”.

There were, he said, “social implications that could potentially be a disaster. Quite a different model, of course, are out-grower schemes, where small farmers work their individual plots of land, participating in farmer co-operatives that aggregate their output and then go to world markets.”" (From "The National")

Hey I just said that!

The farming paradox

"A growing number of World Bank economists are now convinced most poor nations need a healthy farm sector as the basis of a robust economy. The manufacturing booms that swept Asia only happened after the region's farm sectors developed. And new research shows that investing in agriculture lifts more people out of poverty much faster than long thought. The 2007 study "Down to Earth" by World Bank economists Luc Christiaensen and Lionel Demery found economic growth of the agriculture sector is at least twice as effective at reducing poverty as any other sector."

Later in the same article

""Countries should, in general, rely on trade for food security," said Arvind Subramanian, of the Peterson Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that focuses on international economic policy. "The problem is when there are conditions like today. Things get bad, countries impose export restrictions and comparative advantage is not allowed to work. So, the effect of food shocks is amplified.""

Read the full article, replete with paradoxes.

(Thanks D.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Seeds of Destruction

"Pause to think: a normal healthy person can at the most go without food for perhaps seven days but it takes a full season, say around four months, for a seed to grow into food crop. Just five agri-biz corporations, all US based (Cargill, Bunge, Archer Daniels, et al), control global grain trade, and just five control global trade in seeds. Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont, and Dow Chemicals control genetically engineered seeds. While these powerful oligopolies were being knocked into place, anti-trust laws were diluted to exempt these firms. Engdahl writes, “It was not surprising that the Pentagon’s National Defense University, on the eve of the 2003 Iraq War, issued a paper declaring: ‘Agribiz is to the United States what oil is to the Middle East.’ Agribusiness had become a strategic weapon in the arsenal of the world’s only superpower.”"

A review of
“Seeds of Destruction” By F William Engdahl.


"Brazil currently imports 70% of the fertilizers it consumes, especially potassium (90%), phosphates and nitrogen compounds. Arab countries, in turn, import 90% of the foodstuffs required to meet their populations' needs. Each side has what the other side needs.

In order to solve this equation, Brazil is negotiating, with Arab producer countries, tariff preference and regular export deals for commodities - beef, chicken meat, soy, coffee and fruit - in exchange for fertilizers, which would be regularly supplied by that region of the world."

Trading mined non-renewable resources for meat and soy.

This integration

"In fact, joint research and professional study by water professionals at universities, research centers and NGOs from Israel, Jordan and the PA has been a fixture for over 10 years. Yet most of these initiatives took place in parallel, unlike the most recent seminar, which was fully integrated. The fundamental need of water for life requires more of the latter, however. An integrated regional focus to solving the water crisis may even make the call for the heavy investment by Israel in desalination less pressing."

I have written before on the token joint research of university professors and NGOs from Jordan and Palestine with Israel. Mark my words: Israel will never be integrated in the region, water or no water. As for integrated regional plans for water, forget about them: they translate into "Now that Israel has forcibly appropriated the land of Palestine, lets give it legitimacy over the water of its neighbors too". And the only place that will make sense for Israel to "'integrate with" in terms of water is Lebanon. They've had views on Southern Lebanon waters at least since 1919. Somehow integration with South Lebanon really sounds like a non-starter, regardless of the number of Lebanese researchers and NGOs ready and willing to carry out joint programs.

Farmers rights

I was in south Lebanon today with my aunt and her French husband, who comes from a small village called Le Conquet in Bretagne. A few members of his family are still farmers, but he told me that the 7 remaining farms of the village were being bought off one by one by large agribusinesses for the purpose of establishing industrial food production facilities. True they are not being formally "evicted", but when governments make life difficult for farmers (and these are not small scale), then there is only one alternative left.

Below a Via Campesina press release


The hidden face of the global food crisis: Massive farmers rights violations

(Jakarta, 21 June 2008) About 1000 small farmers of the International
movement Via Campesina, men and women from 25 different countries and 12
Indonesian provinces gathered today in Jakarta to claim the right to farm
their land, the right to eat and to feed their families and communities.
They opened a five-day International Conference on Peasant Rights aiming
at attracting world attention to the fate of small producers. Peasants
represent almost half of the world population and are the backbone of the
food system. However, their rights are systematically violated.

Small farmers are expelled from their land to make room for large
plantations, infrastructures and industrial, residential or commercial
projects. For example in Indonesia, on the 29th of Januray 2008, 35
security guards of the National Plantation PTPN IV Adolina backed by 70
police officers from Deli Serdan district destroyed 30 hectares of land
planted with corn and casava belonging to small farmers. Seven farmers
were arrested trying to defend their crops (they are now released). The
company has cleared the land in order to grow palm oil. The UN Special
Rapporteur on the Right to Housing calculates that an average of 71,6% of
rural households in Africa, Latin America and Western and Eastern Asia
(excluding China) are landless or near landess(1). In addition, women
farmers suffer from double marginalisation: as farmers and as women. As
farmers they do most of the agricultural work but as women their access to
land, ressources, incomes and decision-making is restricted.

Trade policies are forcing further liberalisation of food markets. As a
consequence, imported goods are flooding domestic markets. In Mexico, free
trade policies have led to massive low cost corn imports from the US.
Local farmers, unable to compete, have lost their livelihood. The recent
rise in corn prices on the world market has drastically increased the
number of hungry people in Mexico. Meanwhile, small farms are disappearing
all over the world. In Turkey, one farming family leaves the land every 50
seconds. Two years ago farmers unable to repay their bank loans started to
commit suicide, this situation has dramatically increased since.

Farmers organisations struggling to defend their rights - access to land,
water and seeds, specially those demanding a greater participation in
agricultural policies are subject to criminalisation and very violent
repression. In Brazil, it is estimated that 4,340 families have been
expelled from their land by private companies in 2007, 28 people were
assassinated and 259 people received death threats in land conflicts(2).
In november 2007, Valmir Mota d'Oliveira (Keno), a peasant leader from Via
Campesina Brazil was assassinated during a land occupation by the security
guards employed by the transnational company Syngenta(3).

In Indonesia during 2007, over 196,179 hectares of agricultural land were
expropriated, more than 166 peasants were arrested and exposed to
violence, 12 people were injured and 8 people killed in agrarian conflicts

The peasants and their allies meeting at the International Conference in
Jakarta will present the situation in their countries and join forces to
have their rights recognised and implemented.

Via Campesina is asking the UN to set up an international legal framework
recognising Peasant Rights. Via Campesina requires that each governement
and the international institutions take their responsibilities and
implement small producers’ rights, by supporting sustainable family
farming, agrarian reform and promoting local food markets.

The current food and environment crisis are the outcome of extensive
farming, food chain control by transnational companies and food market
liberalisation. This is destroying the environment, replacing family farms
by large agricultural estates. Food is now in the hands of investors and
speculators. Such policies have left millions of farmers without a proper
income and the world population in a global food crisis.

Now governments have to solve the crisis they created when thinking that
free trade would suffice to organise markets and feed the world. The time
has come to redirect agricultural policies towards small scale food
production, sustainable agriculture and local markets.
Food is not only an issue for farmers, it is a concern for all human beings.

(1) E/CN.4/2003/5/Add.1
(2) Conflictos no Campo Brasil, CPT, 2007
(3) More information on
(4) Serikat Petani Indonesia - Report on Peasant's Rights Violations – 2007

Speakers at the Press conference

 Henry Saragih, General Coordinator of La Via Campesina and
General Secretary of SPI (Indonesian Peasant's Union) – From Indonesia
 Paul Nicholson, Member of the international coordinating
Committee of La Via Campesina – From the Basque Country
 Juana Mercedes, General Coordiator of CONAMUCA (National
confederation of rural women) – From the Dominican Republic

More information on and

Cecep Risandar (+ 62 – 0 - 8129452478)
Isabelle Delforge (+ 62 – 0 – 81513224565)

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Nile isn't what it used to be

""I can't hold anything in my hands when my skin is infected. Doctors prescribe ointments, but even with them I have to stay at home sometimes," Issa told IRIN in a telephone conversation.

Issa earns 15-20 Egyptian pounds [US$2.82-$3.76] a day, but is more concerned about his catch, which has been dwindling.

"Fifteen years ago, I used to catch 50-60 kilos every day. Today I cannot get more than five kilos and sometimes I return empty-handed," he said, adding that what he now catches is not enough to feed his wife and four children.

It was not possible to contact the relevant government body for comment." (Thanks Rania)

La Via Campesina

Esther nails it.

FAO: more free trade, more hunger

Yesterday the high level summit of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (the FAO) held in Rome on Food Security ended. The conclusions of the gathering do not indicate a change in the policy trends which have been in force these last years and which have led to the current situation.

The declarations of good intentions made by various governments and the promises of millions of euros to end hunger in the world are not capable of ending the structural causes that have generated this crisis. On the contrary, the proposals made by the general secretary of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon, to increase food production by 50% and to eliminate the export limits imposed by some of the countries affected, only reinforces the root causes of this crisis rather than addressing and guaranteeing the food security of the majority of the people in the global South.

The monopoly of certain multinational corporations in each one of the links in the chain of food production, from seeds to fertilizers to marketing and distribution of what we eat, is something that was not dealt with during this summit. However, despite the crisis, the principle seed companies, Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, have realized a growing increase in profits as have the principle chemical fertilizer corporations. The largest food processing companies such as Nestle and Unilever have also announced an increase in benefits, though less large that those who control the first rungs in the food system ladder. In the same way the large distributors of food such as Wal-Mart, Tesco and Carrefour have confirmed that their profits continue to rise.

The results of the FAO summit reflect the consensus reached among the UN, the World Bank (WB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to maintain economic and trade policies of South-North dependency and to support the agribusiness transnationals. The recommendations promoted in favor of a greater opening of the markets of the South, to subsidize food imports as part of development aid, and betting on a new green revolution all point in this direction.

Excluded from the debate were those who work and care for the land, the hands with whom our food policies ought to be placed, the men and women family farmers. When representatives of farmer organizations tried to present their proposals at the official inauguration of the summit, they were removed by force. In high level meetings that preceded this one, a greater participation of social collectives was permitted, whereas now, before the gravity of the situation, the doors were kept closed, a fact that has been denounced by the international network of the Via Campesina.

A resolution of the crisis situation implies putting an end to the current agricultural model and food system which puts the interests of the large transnational corporations ahead of the food needs of millions of people. Is it necessary to deal with the structural causes; the neo-liberal policies that have been systematically applied in the last 30 years, promoted by the WB, the IMF and the World Trade Organization (WTO), with the U.S. and the European Union in front. Some policies have meant an economic liberalization on a global scale, the unrestrained opening of markets, and the privatization of lands dedicated to local supply and a conversion of that land to export monocultures, which have all led us to the grave situation of food insecurity at the present time. According to the WB it is calculated that 850 million people have been suffering hunger (prior to the “crisis”) and that an additional 100 million will be added to this group due to the crisis.

The way out of this crisis requires the regulating and controlling of the market and of international trade; rebuilding national economies; returning control of food production to the family farmers and guaranteeing their access to land, seeds and water; getting agriculture out of the free trade agreements and the WTO; and putting an end to the speculation on hunger.

The market cannot solve this problem. To counter the declarations of the number 2 at the FAO, José María Sumpsi, who affirmed that this is an issue of supply and demand due to the rise in consumption in emerging countries such as Indian, China and Brazil, we must remember that never before has there been a more bountiful harvest in the world.

Today humanity produces three times what was produced in the 1960s, while the population has only doubled. There is no production crisis in agriculture, but the impossibility of accessing food by large populations who cannot pay current prices. The solution cannot be more free trade because, as has been demonstrated, more free trade implies more hunger and less access to food. We do not want to throw more fuel on the fire.

Esther Vivas is Co-Coordinator of “Supermarkets, No Thanks” and “Where is Fair Trade Headed?”

Published 06/06/2008

Israel in Palestine: Apartheid

"For the Palestinians, however, the grass really is always greener on the other side of the separation wall. In the barren hills around Bethlehem, the earth lies arid and parched, and the sequestering of the Palestinians' water reserves by the Israeli authorities means that there's little chance of quenching the land's thirst.

Into the void have stepped four British post-graduates, who have set up a permaculture initiative in farmland on the outskirts of Beit Sahour. Nick, Tom, Alice, and Steve – all of whom studied at Bangor University - are undertaking a groundbreaking project to empower the local community, which has long suffered the effects of the crippling occupation and restrictions placed on it by Israel.

While their cause is both novel and noble, it is – unfortunately – a drop in the ocean compared with the relentless expropriation of Palestinian water and land by the Israeli authorities. As I saw in Maaleh Adumim, the flagrant violations of the Geneva Convention mean that the Israeli boast of making the "desert bloom" rings by no means hollow – for the Jewish citizens at least – and has come true entirely at the expense of their beleaguered Palestinian neighbours."

Seth Freedman on Israel and the Palestinians and their water. Please read.


Badael-Alternatives in Al Akhbar (the best Arabic newspaper). My editorial: "A lesson in history" or how the Lebanese government would fail to graduate from intermediate school. An article by Norbert Hirschhorn on the relationship between the tobacco corporations and food policies. Rana Hayeck: Exercise helps you get rid of muscle and joint pain. The world of plants: fear the nightshade or belladonna. Mohammad Muhsin writes about ostrich meat, often called a dumb bird. He reminds us: you can catch madness from a mad cow, but you're unlikely to catch dumbness from a dumb bird.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Turkey run

But an intriguing cover story in the Jerusalem Report also highlights some much neglected incentives to reach an agreement:

"A grandiose plan that would put an end to the acute water shortage plaguing Israel and its neighbours has been tossed on to the table as part of the tangle of fact and fiction, hype and spin, reality and fantasy, surrounding the dramatic late May announcement of the official renewal of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations under Turkish mediation."

The plan envisages that two to three billion cubic meters of water a year would be diverted from two rivers in southeastern Turkey to Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority:

"The water would be channeled from Turkey, which enjoys a huge water surplus, in underground pipes and overland canals through western Syria to the southern slopes of Mount Hermon, where it would flow into a dam along the length of the northern stretch of a new Israeli-Syrian border, providing hydro-electric power and serving as a major obstacle against a tank blitz from the Golan Heights, which would be returned to Syria as part of the projected peace package. Some of the water en route would be diverted to Lebanon and water from the dam channeled to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority."

Cotton or food?

"Biofuels are currently being accused of starving the world of food, by taking over badly needed land and water. But the fact is, cotton deprives food growers of much more water and good farming land than biofuels.

If we weren't already doing it, and somebody today came up with the idea of taking over the world's fields to grow clothes, there'd be a huge stink. So is it time for a reassessment of cotton and other non-food crops?

The charge list against cotton is long. Cotton drained the Aral Sea in central Asia. I have stood on the former shoreline at Muynak in Uzbekistan and looked out across the 100 kilometres of desert you'd have to cross to find the sea. No water gets down the rivers that once topped up the inland sea, because it is also taken to irrigate fields of cotton to make clothes for sale in our high streets and shopping malls." (Thanks Rania)

Fred Pearce nails it as usual in the short article from the New Scientist environment blog. I can help thinking of the slavery associated with cotton, and of the fact that Egyptians grow high quality cotton for export, and that they import low quality cotton to clothe themselves. And that Syria uses the Euphrates water to grow cotton: 750,000 tons in 2007.

Meanwhile in Gaza

GAZA CITY, Jun 18 (IPS) - The girl, about 16, is wandering about Jebaliya refugee camp, picking up anything she thinks can burn. She cannot find enough bits of wood, so she gathers plastic bags, old notebooks and even a pair of broken plastic sandals.

"I want to heat some water," she said. "I want a bath."

Not far away, Mohammed Abu Elenin, 23, exhaustion all over his face, prepares for a fourth night outside a gas station to refill his canister. His brother Nour has sat up with him. Earlier he could get half a fill. Now he doesn't know what may come, but waits.

"Some weeks ago, I managed to get a half cylinder of cooking gas," he says. "It lasted just one week. Now we have nothing to cook with."

His family, like others, have turned to cooking over makeshift fires. That fills houses with smoke, and it is dangerous. And now firewood too is scarce.
More GMO conspiracy on video. (Thanks A.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Convert old drums into container gardens, planting vegetables like sweet peppers and tomatoes for your own use," she said. (Thanks Leila)


Thanks to RobG I am now a subscriber to Real World Economic Review/Post-Autistic Economic review. Beats the Economist!

Food security

I love la Via Campesina. Why? Look at their position on food security in bold in the text.

Food sovereignty to answer world food and energy crisis

Speech by Henry Saragih at a Swissaid meeting in Berne, 29 May 2008

    Throughout the history of farming, peasants and villagers have obtained energy from their farmland to fulfil their daily needs. Peasant families are used to using the oil extracted from the coconut (copra) to light lamps in their houses. Even now peasant families still use biomass to make firewood for cooking meals. They collect the branches that fall from trees and dry bushes during their day working on their farmland. The technology of using biogas that is processed from animal waste is also very common in peasant communities. Other sources of kinetic energy from rivers such as small micro hydro electric generators are also very common in rural areas. These are some examples on how peasants explore natural alternatives, extracting and generating energy from their farmland.

    For some centuries we did not have any problems because of the existence of these models of getting energy from farmland. This is renewable energy because peasants could always get it almost like they could harvest fruits from the trees. Peasants needed this kind energy and they were able to produce it in integration with other farming activities in the farmland.

    Agrofuels have become an increasingly important issue in these recent years. The issue become very significant because big oil companies need another resources of fuel to complement crude oil based fuels. This idea did not originate with peasants. Before we further discuss agrofuels it is important to expand a little bit about food sovereignty so we can start the analysis from what has been happening with peasant based agriculture.

    Via Campesina does not follow the concept and policy of food security that is promoted by FAO because it does not fit in with the realities of peasant farming. Even more La Via Campesina see it as potentially creating big problems for the people of the world, and first and foremost for peasants and small farmers.

    Via Campesina reject the policy and the concept of food security that only guarantee that every mouth is fed. It does not address some basic principles of the food system like: who should produce food, how food is being produced and distributed, who should benefit from the food system and how to secure sustainable relationship between the peasant and the consumer. In short, food security just wants to accommodate the interests of agribusiness corporations and trans-national agribusiness corporations (TNCs). Peasants do not want the meaning of food and agriculture to be reduced to only a matter of commodities in markets, and to be subject to the free market. By reducing the meaning of food to a commodity, only those who have money will be able to have access to food.

    We do not want markets to determine food production and consumption, we want peasants and consumers to be those who decide on and control food because most of the producers and consumers of food in the world are actually peasant families. We do not want a competitive world food system which will destroy the sovereignty of countries mandated to feed their people. Therefore La Via Campesina struggles to take the WTO out of agriculture.

    We fight against the neo-liberal food system because instead of making the food system stronger by protecting the peasants who produce food and giving more protection under the right of food, it create the food crisis; soaring food prices and creating hunger everywhere as is happening now.

    In Indonesia’s case, there has been a lot of investment on palm oil plantations. In the beginning the objective was to export the palm oil as crude palm oil (CPO) and process it into cooking oil for the national market. Many international agribusiness corporations have started palm oil plantations which have led to many land conflict cases with the peasant movement in Indonesia. This is because these plantations have been started on communal and peasant-owned lands. The plantations are operated on a monoculture model, by doing so contributing to many natural disasters; the extinction of biodiversity, water scarcity during the drought season and severe floods and land slides during the rainy season. Many peasants have had to live as landless peasants and have been forced to work as daily or weekly cheap labour.

    While the issue of agrofuel production is escalating around the world, the government of Indonesia is promoting palm oil plantation by inviting further investment. They do not care about the fact that most of the peasants hold an average of jus 0.3 hectares of land. Worse, as the international price of palm oil is increasing, companies are exporting their production and making the price of edible oil in the national market increase dramatically. The government can't do more than just make new regulations which ask companies to decrease their export volume. This doesn’t help much, because corporations are more interested in their profits. As an impact, food riots have occurred in many places because people were forced to wait for the subsidized program of edible oil. Women and children have had to stand in queues under the sun for extended periods holding their coupons and people have become incensed and begun to riot. It is a more than ironic situation where Indonesia is the second greatest producer of palm oil but people do not benefit from it at all.

    The existing agrofuel program makes the food system worse. After the liberalization of food markets forced a win and lose game between competing countries, now peasants compete with cars.

    Via Campesina believe in the principle of Genuine Agrarian Reform which would make sure that peasants have enough land through land distribution. Because by only having control over land can peasants guarantee food for their families and local communities. And by implementation of Food Sovereignty, peasants are convinced that they can feed the world.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

It's about management

"Rejecting old customs as well as the modern reliance on genetic engineering, Dr. Uphoff, 67, an emeritus professor of government and international agriculture with a trim white beard and a tidy office, advocates a management revolt.

Harvests typically double, he says, if farmers plant early, give seedlings more room to grow and stop flooding fields. That cuts water and seed costs while promoting root and leaf growth." (Thanks D., Anna and Rania)

Forget about GMOs, here comes the soft approach. The international agribusinesses are going to be thrilled. Uphoff is from Cornell, Norman Borlaug's university. Borlaug was instrumental in the Green revolution...

By the way there have been lots of research published on similar themes, like increasing spacing for improving yields, but very little has ever been taken into account. The business of seeds.

Trickle down

Fahmi Huwaydi on addressing the food crisis in Egypt. This Arabic article published in Assafir today offers interesting perspectives. It starts with a discussion about the change in food habits in many poor developing nations (Bengladesh appear to e encouraging a shift from rice to potato) and then discusses Egypt's predicament. Egypt imports most of the staples it consumes: 80% of the corn, 90% of the cooking oil and 50% of the wheat, flour and beans, 33% of the sugar, and 98% of the lentils. For those who know Egypt, this pretty much summarizes the diet of most people, except for the upper middle class and the oligarchy. The possibilities to expand agricultural lands are limited, and so is the water, as there are no clear predictions of what will happen to the Nile water if global precipitations decrease. The article offers technical solutions to the problem ("science and technology will solve everything") and recommends that Egypt does what Saudi Arabia is doing: renting farmland in Sudan.

So now Saudi Arabia will rent large farms in Egypt to feed its people, and Egypt will rent large farms in Sudan to feed its people. I guess that's why they called it trickle down.

Monday, June 16, 2008


"Saudi Arabia unveiled its plans to develop large-scale overseas agricultural projects to secure food supplies and revealed that they were in discussions with Turkey, Ukraine, Pakistan, Sudan, and Egypt according to a report published in the Financial Times on Friday.

"The Saudi government plans to set up projects of at least 100,000 hectares in several countries to grow crops such as wheat, corn, rice, soybeans and alfalfa, a feed for livestock," Abdullah al-Obaid, the Saudi Arabian deputy agriculture minister, was quoted as saying by the FT.

Saudi Arabia is the world's largest importer of barley and one of the five largest importers of rice. Saudi Arabia will also be set to become one of the world's top wheat importers when it phases out domestic production of the grain."

This is a very interesting outcome of the food crisis. It is true that the Gulf countries do not produce much more than oil, which they cannot eat. They are rich, and they will soon be investing their money in what appears to be industrial scale operations in poorer countries. This raises a number of questions: will the countries which will produce food for the Saudis and the other Gulf countries have access to food themselves? Industrial farming is a heavy drain on resources, especially water, how will the long term impacts be factored in? Who will be the beneficiaries of these food production systems in the host countries? Imagine a situation in which land and water resources will be rented to large businesses in, say, Egypt or Sudan at low prices (I heard $500 per hectare) in order to produce wheat for Saudi Arabia when the local people themselves do not have access to bread. The only people who will make money on this are the few official in charge of making the deal for renting the lands out, and the company managing the farms. As for the locals, a few of them will be hired as cheap labor on these mega farms, and they will be expected to be grateful for that.

This is how you create extremism. But I guess the national army or private security firms will deal with that.

There is, of course, a different way, one in which profits will be more equally shared between all the players. Let Egypt (or Sudan or elsewhere) produce for Saudi Arabia, but on the basis of small to medium sized farms, managed and owned by individual farmers and farming families. And let there be a deal that part of the crop will go to satisfy the country's own needs, instead of exporting and then importing the same commodity. This will reduce unemployment and induce development. And, as we have learned earlier, this will be more efficient and possibly more productive. It will also improve food security. The problem? Capital cannot anymore be concentrated into the hands of a few already too rich people who also happen to be part of the regime.

The UN of GWB

"The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has handed out the first batch of 1,600 goats and 200 cows to farmers in southern Lebanon as part as its programme to assist them recover from livestock losses accrued during the war in mid-2006."

I just received a phone call from a person I know who was interested in bidding to sell FAO goats for distribution. He called to complain that the process of selecting the animal stock was totally corrupt and that the purchasing committee had severe conflict of interest. I cant help noticing that this is the worst season to buy goats as this is when they are the most expensive: it is the middle of the milking season.

Notice also how this UN article refers to
"the war between the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and Hizbollah in 2006". In Lebanon, we call it by its real name: Israel's war on Lebanon. But what do you expect from the UN of GWB?

Food control

"These trading giants have remained shadowy in European perception, despite their colossal footprint. Cargill, the largest privately owned corporation in the world in most years, was said in testimony to the US senate in 1999 to control 45% of global grain trade, including 42% of US corn exports, a third of all soya bean exports and about 20% of wheat exports. It is also the world's largest crusher of oilseeds such as soya and rapeseed. Since it is a private company and not obliged to publish detailed accounts, more recent and accurate share figures are hard to come by. It declines to comment on its market shares, but it has, if anything, consolidated its position since then, although its areas of concentration shift. Its revenues in 2007 were $88bn. Most of us eat its products in some form every day, yet many of us have never heard of it. Nor had I before I started writing about the politics of food, but since then it has been hard not to stumble across its operations in every country whenever I visit a food factory, industrial farm or fast food or supermarket supplier."

From Eat Your Heart Out: Why the Food Business Is Bad for the Planet and Your Health, by Felicity Lawrence, to be published by Penguin on June 26. (Thanks Rania)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Blame it on Malthus

"Cohen, of Rockefeller University, sees it in more sinister terms: Americans like Malthus because he takes the blame off us. Malthus says the problem is too many poor people.

Or, to put it in the terms in which the current crisis is usually explained: too many hard-working Chinese and Indians who think they should be able to eat pizza, meat and coffee and aspire to a reservation at Chez Panisse. They get blamed for raising global prices so much that poor Africans and Asians can't afford porridge and rice. The truth is, the upward pressure was there before they added to it.

America has always been charitable, so the answer has never been, "Let them eat bean sprouts." But it has been, "Let them eat subsidized American corn shipped over in American ships." That may need to change." (Thanks Yaz)

Small farmers

"In some cases, the difference is enormous. A recent study of farming in Turkey, for example, found that farms of less than one hectare are 20 times as productive as farms of more than 10 hectares. Sen's observation has been tested in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, the Philippines, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay. It appears to hold almost everywhere.

The finding would be surprising in any industry, as we have come to associate efficiency with scale. In farming it seems particularly odd, because small producers are less likely to own machinery, less likely to have capital or access to credit, and less likely to know about the latest techniques." (Thanks Leila)

Monbiot on how small farmers are the way to go. Essential reading.


Abdel Halim Fadlallah asks in Al Akhbar: who will have the courage to revive agriculture in Lebanon? This is very well phrased, and yes it will require courage for any minister to depart from the market fundamentalism that rules Lebanon economy. I also learned a new word today: Post-Autistic Economic Movement, "which argues that neoclassical or "mainstream" economics is delusionary". Where does one join?


The United Arab Emirates' annual food import bill is $16 billions. Much of it is in meat and animal products fro Brazil and India, and tons of food is wasted and end up in the bin, but it's all part of the lifestyle exemplified by Dubai, the pearl of the UAE. The economic council of the UAE has decided that it needs to address the food crisis by importing more, stocking it and diversifying the sources. The UAE's agricultural potential is tiny, and imports will have to continue to be the main source of food. But look what sorry state the Arab World is in: in spite of the vapid talk of "integration" that keep being repeated at each Arab League meeting, the reality is that it is disjointed and that each one of the colonially created nations is now a stand alone entity, disconnected from its environment. The food crisis could have paved the way to major integration in farming and food production between the different Arab countries.

Friday, June 13, 2008


"American corn and soybean farmers are suffering from too much rain, while Australian wheat farmers have been plagued by drought.

“The planting has gotten off to a poor start,” said Bill Nelson, a grains analyst. “The anxiety level is increasing.”

As a result (of droughts in Australia), the harvest is likely to be below average: 5 million to 15 million tons of wheat available for export, compared with 17 million or 18 million tons in an average year.

China also faces trouble: the agriculture ministry issued an urgent notice to wheat and rice farmers in southern China on Sunday, telling them to harvest as much of their crop as possible immediately in the face of unseasonable torrential rains expected to rake the region for the next 10 days." (Thanks Leila)

In South Lebanon, farmers are killed by Israeli mines

A farmer was killed and another wounded as their tractor was blown by an Israeli mine in South Lebanon. Eight years after its withdrawal from South Lebanon, Israel still refuses to disclose the locations of the mines it has planted, although it was summoned to do that by the UN on more than one occasion. But the UN summons do not apply to Israel, that much is known. And just imagine what would happen to Lebanon if a kibbutzim was killed and another wounded by a mine left by the Lebanese Resistance. A wild guess: months of mayhem under the complacent eyes of the same UN, and to the cheers of the "International Community"?


From Al Akhbar, the Badael (alternatives) page of the week: My editorial "It is wrong to believe that the Lebanese state is against farmers and lacks an agricultural policy. The state is only against small farmers, and its policy is clear: facilitate industrial, export oriented agriculture" (read for more). Faysal al Kak wrote an article on nutrition and osteoporosis. The double standards of Nestle exposed in this article: they promote good nutrition but sell bad nutrition. Kibbeh is not the same everywhere. in the South it is called frakeh. And don't stare too much at the screen, or you'll become stressed.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Journey to Ham

I went today with my friend Tanya (who is also the brilliant photographer of our forthcoming book on Lebanon's food trail- see a sample here) to Ham, a small village lost in the confines of the Anti Lebanon mountain chain. We were looking for salamouni wheat, an old wheat variety that is still grown in this part of the country. You can read about salamouni here. It is one of the oldest bread and burghul wheat varieties in Lebanon, and Ham, because of its remote location, acts like a living museum of traditional land races.

If you look closely at the map above, you will see that Ham is very close to Syria. In fact, it is located in this sort of peninsula that protrudes into Syrian territory, and for the longest time this Lebanese village was only accessible through...Syria. Eventually, the Lebanese government opened a mountain road from Baalbak, which people only took in case on force majeure due to the frequent highway robberies. I was told that no one would dare take that road with 50 liras (30 cents) in their pocket. Recently, the local people themselves opened a much shorter road linking their village to the west to Khraybeh, Al Khodor and Sifri. The road does not appear on the touristic maps of the country, but it is much shorter and safer. Getting there is easier now: drive towards Baalbak and take the first road to the east after the AUB farm (Hwash Sneid) roundabout. Then drive straight to Ham.

I asked what did people do for a living, and the answer was straight forward: what do you want people who live so close to Syria do? Smuggle, of course! The goods they smuggle vary with the vagaries of the global economy. Nowadays, they export second hand or unbranded shoes and clothes bought in bulk, usually from the US, and import diesel fuel, which is subsidized in Syria. Of course smuggling is highly punishable in Syria and Lebanon and they can lose their lives if they do not grease the right hand. It did look as if they knew whose hand to grease, because the village, in spite of the omnipresent smell of mazout, seemed to be doing OK. The only serious losses in lives they recount were inflicted by the Israeli drones during the July 2006 bombing campaign. They chased the mazout smugglers and killed 5 of them in 2 separate incidents.

However, and as in many other border towns (such as `Arsal to the north of Baalbak, where I have done research for 12 years), people reinvest part of the cash they earn from smuggling into the land. Ham (which is located at 1,500 m altitude) is blessed with a number of springs exploding from the flanks of the mountain. The soil is fertile in the flat depression surrounding the village, and you can see all sort of fruit trees and vegetables: apples, pears, apricots, cherries, tomatoes and lettuce. There are even huge walnut and poplar trees, a further indication of the richness in water. But water is limited to a couple of hundred hectares in an elevated plain. The rest of the extensive village lands is rugged, parched and dry. This environment, however, is very favorable to wheat production: the highlands are the salamouni lands.

Together with Rifaat, a young farmer with diverse other occupations, we climbed to 1,800 m to look for the wheat fields. Unlike elsewhere in Lebanon where most of the wheat has already been harvested, Rifaat's fields were still green. He told me that there are 2 kinds of salamouni: the white, also called Breiji, used for burghul and bread and the red type, from which only fine burghul is made.

We harvested a few armfuls of green wheat for roasting later, and made our way back to the village where his mum, the fierce Umm `Ali baked for us delicious tannur bread made with salamouni flour. She also made fabulous kishk pies, but we ate them faster than I could press the shutter button on my camera (by the way all photos are mine. Tanya's are real photos, like art).

We took the new road on the way back, and in the village of Al Khodor (Arabic name for St. George, the dragon slayer) I was stopped by this stunning field of khatmiyyeh (marshmallow plant). Khatmiyyed grows wild almost everywhere in Lebanon, requires little or no irrigation, and is used in the traditional Lebanese and Damascene (Shami) tisane (zhourat). In spring, you can see large numbers of people harvesting the purple or white flowers from the wild, but this is the first time I see it planted and irrigated as a crop. An aromatic plants entrepreneur in Al Khodor. I'll keep this in mind.

So thoughtful...

"Perhaps mindful of accusations of hypocrisy leveled at them six years ago, world leaders tightened their belts this year and were offered a far more modest menu of pasta, mozzarella, spinach and sweetcorn at the equivalent fixture.

“It does not look good if leaders discussing global starvation are seen to be dining lavishly,” an FAO official said. “At the last summit in 2002 we did not give enough thought to the menu and were open - unfairly, in our view - to the charge of hypocrisy.”

2002 menu

Foie gras and toast with kiwi fruit
Lobster in vinaigrette
Fillet of goose with olives
Seasonal vegetables
Compote of fruit with vanilla
Vins multiple fine wines

2008 menu

Vol au vent with sweetcorn and mozzarella
Pasta with cream of pumpkin and shrimps
Veal olives with cherry tomatoes and basil
Fruit salad with vanilla ice cream
Vin Orvieto Classico Poggio Calvelli 2005"

(Thanks D.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Korea says no!

"About 100,000 flag-waving South Koreans marched with candles in downtown Seoul in the biggest protest yet over the impending resumption of U.S. beef imports Tuesday while police guarded the presidential office with a giant barricade.

Shouting, "Renegotiate!", the demonstrators took part in Tuesday's candlelit protests. Some 20,000 riot police were being mobilized. The South Korea's largest candlelight rally was held here to pressure the Lee Myung-bak administration to renegotiate an agreement to open South Korea's market to U.S. beef with almost no restrictions." (Thanks Marcy)

Egyptians protest against fertilizer plant

""It's as if the government were in a coma," Magdi Hussein, general secretary of the frozen Labour party who participated in Friday's demonstration told IPS. "It appears to be completely unaware of the public mood on this issue."

"The entire episode proves the failure of this government of businessmen," said Abdelazim. "Its policies work in the interests of a small ruling elite -- not for the average citizen.""

New Egypt

Trust crisis

Sharp criticism of the FAO food crisis conference from Lebanon by Shahira Salloum: "Showed the weakness of the UN and was used as a platform to sell free trade and ultra liberalization". Never trust the UN to come up with real solutions to empower the poor and powerless. Never.

Trade deficit

Trade deficit in Lebanon January to April 2008: $1 billion. These reports never cease to amaze me: Our main export products are pearls and precious metals and gems, electrical devices and simple metals and chemical products. Our main imports are...electrical devices, simple metals and chemical products. What happens to the jewelery? And can someone tell me why is Switzerland our main import partner? What do they import that is worth $164 millions in 5 months?

And while we're on the subject, here's the latest on public debt: $42 billions till the end of 2007.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Leila sent me this. I post with her permission.

"Dear Rami - I tell you these things first - you might see this in the press in another two or three days. I know it's not your area of interest but I thought you might be interested in this blog post detailing how several small farming cities in Iowa are in danger of going the way of New Orleans

but the National Guard of Iowa is only at 60% capacity, with not enough heavy equipment to save the levees and homes, because guess where the Guardsmen are deployed? Iraq.

Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk from major floods at the moment.

The US Army is so overstretched in Iraq that they have been using National Guard troops since the beginning of the invasion. And yet it is National Guard that rescues us from disasters, not the main US Army. If we have our big earthquake in California we are in trouble, because our Guardsmen are either in Baghdad or down by the Mexican border, keeping out the migrant workers. Meanwhile, the pear crop rotted on the trees last year from lack of pickers, and other crops are in similar trouble this year."

Development trials

Ever wondered what happens to the pilot rural development projects years after they end? Having worked in the field for 20 years I know that they dissolve and disappear, but I have not seen any studies to show that. This article in al akhbar is of course not a study, but it is not bad as a start: the writer went to villages in Akkar 12 years after Mercy Corps, funded with USAID money, had introduced pilot methane production at household level. I remember this project very well because at the time I had friends working with Mercy Corps who had told me about it. I think methane digesters are a great idea, and I know that there are many places in the world where they are routinely used. The article report that the ones that had been installed in Akkar had been quickly abandoned, even though they had functioned reasonably well. Among the reasons for the failure: high maintenance requirement. The local people complained also that the "pilot" projects are unfair are the beneficiaries are a few people selected from the community, while most of the others get nothing.

Incidentally, I have worked last year with an Italian aid agency offering gray water treatment installations in South Lebanon, and I have a former student working on the evaluation of a similar project in the Bekaa, and in both places, the complaints are the same: maintenance requirements and selectivity of the beneficiaries. In any case, I guess the only real beneficiaries are the implementing agencies and their staff.

From the plain to the souk

I am fond of farmer's markets. The Nabatiyyeh Souk is one of the oldest farmer's and producer's markets in Lebanon. It is still held every monday in the southern town of Nabatiyyeh, where, I have learned today from this article in Al Safir, it is called souk ahl Kfarroummane, or the market of the people from Kfarroummane. The village of Kfarroummane is adjacent to Nabatiyyeh and has become one of its suburbs. But the farmlands of the village include the extensive Maidaneh plain (the plain of the minaret), which extends over several hundreds of hectares of very fertile lands. What makes Maidaneh special is that unlike the rest of this very dry region, it is irrigated from a small river, the Zuraykoun, and from a number of springs. Maidaneh was the main food production zone of the Nabatiyyeh region, and it had endless citrus groves along with walnut orchards and extensive vegetables production. Between 1982 and 2000 the Israeli prevented anyone from entering the area. They burned all the orchards and turned the plain into a desert. After the liberation of the south in 2000, the people of Kfarroummane went back to Maidaneh, cleared it from unexploded shells and mines, and replanted it again with fruit trees, wheat, walnuts and all sorts of vegetables including the curious purple carrot that I have only seen there.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Food in the Middle East and North Africa

In MENA, household food insecurity, which is closely related to poverty and undernourishment, is most severe in rural areas and concentrated within Iraq, Sudan, and Yemen. 25% of the MENA population may be poor and 7% undernourished. The key to increased national and household-level food security is pro-poor growth, driven by export-oriented, labor-intensive sectors. Agricultural sector policies should be subordinate to the pro-poor growth goal and not to the goal of food self-sufficiency. Such a strategy requires conflict resolution; macroeconomic stability; physical and human capital accumulation; reliance on markets and the private sector, and diffusion of ecologically friendly farming practices.

JEL Classification Codes: O13, O53, Q18

Key Words: Middle East and North Africa, food security, poverty, agriculture,
development strategy

This paper was published under the same title and by the same authors on pp. 1-31 in Lofgren, Hans, ed. (2003) Food, Agriculture, and Economic Policy in the Middle East and North Africa. Research in Middle East Economics, Volume 5. Amsterdam: JAI Press/Elsevier and is issued as a Discussion Paper with permission from Elsevier. The Elsevier home page is at For information about the volume, see (Thanks Ramla)

Discussion paper is a bit old but very useful for general trends

Food for love program

" So why is it that in most places, the United States receives little or no credit for its generosity? This is particularly worrisome in Muslim countries, where dislike not just of the U.S. government but of the American people has increased even though U.S. aid has burgeoned. This is partly because of the mixed record of foreign aid programs, which have sometimes done more harm than good. It's also partly because no amount of aid will compensate for dreadful U.S. policies, such as the continued operation of the searingly symbolic detention center in Guantanamo Bay.

Humanitarian aid must be given unconditionally, but at the same time, the U.S. should launch a high-profile food diplomacy initiative planned, funded and executed for the purpose of improving national security through humanitarian means. The program should particularly target Muslims in such strategically important places as South Waziristan, Gaza, Lebanon, Algeria, Jordan and Egypt. Radical Islamist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood have used charity to develop their political leverage for years, and as The Times recently reported, they have found in the food crisis an opportunity to expand their franchise. The United States should make such Islamist aid networks irrelevant by burying them in a landslide of relief for the poor."

What can I say? Does the writer really believe that if the US gives billions of $ in military aid to Israel, plus unconditional support to the oppression of the Palestinian people, this will be forgotten because of a few million $ in food aid? There must be a name for this kind of thinking.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Egyptian cotton and child labor

Before you buy the luxurious Egyptian cotton, make sure you read this article on child labor in cotton farming in Egypt. Cotton: what a crop, what a history! Black slavery, forced child labour, intensive pesticide and agrochemical use, subsidies to US farmers that destroy production in Africa, GMO and on and on... (Thanks Rania). By the way, the Egyptians do not use their own cotton: they export it to earn hard currencies. They import cheap cotton and synthetics to manufacture their clothes. And remember that the dividends from cotton farming, export and import DO NOT benefit the poor, those who farm the cotton. The earnings are concentrated in the hands of a few, who are the new business ruling class in Egypt. There are stories to be told about Egyptian agriculture, stories to make the Nile weep.

"For the children here, education is a luxury their parents cannot afford. Instead their days are regulated by the harvests: radishes in winter, onions in spring, and Egyptian cotton in summer and autumn. In the next month the fields that cling to the banks of the Nile will be full of children working the cotton for up to 10 hours a day. Perhaps most alarming is the nature of
their work – removing the bollworm, the cotton farmers' nemesis, and handling plants drenched in pesticides. Accurate health studies are thin on the ground here, but many of the children complain of breathing difficulties at the height of summer.

Drive across Egypt and you will see children working everywhere. In rural street cafes they serve tea to farmers, on building sites they carry heavy limestone bricks. Though the issue has traditionally been ignored, the focus on their plight has grown in recent years. Today, an estimated 2.7m children work across the country, the majority in agriculture, with more than 1m hired each year for the cotton harvest, during which they work long hours in 40C heat. Increasingly, though, there is no school time in between. In a recent Unicef survey, nearly all children asked reported beatings by foremen in the fields.

According to most NGOs, eradicating child labour in agriculture in Egypt would be impossible, as it is traditionally an issue between families. But our investigation in the Nile Valley has found that the children are more likely to be victims of modern-day gangmasters, who recruit them from impoverished families to work the fields from dawn until dusk.

In the west, Egyptian cotton has become a byword for luxury. No five-star hotel in central London or downtown Manhattan is complete without starched white sheets from the Nile Valley on its beds. Marks & Spencer, John Lewis, Habitat, Ikea, even Tesco now carry luxury Egyptian cotton ranges. Then there are the ubiquitous Egyptian cotton towels. In Britain alone the cotton
business, from sheets to high street clothing, is worth billions."

Saturday, June 7, 2008

In the plain

I met this man today. He was working his pepper fields in Sahl al Maidaneh (literally: the plain of the minaret) near Kfaroummane, South Lebanon.

The battle of life

"An international conference agreed Friday to hold producers or handlers of genetically engineered organisms liable for damage their products cause to native plants or animals when transported across borders.

The agreement, concluding a five-day, 147-nation conference in Bonn, Germany, will be refined into an accord that will have the force of law for its signatories _ a process expected to take two years, said the German government representative, Ursula Heinen.

The agreement would not be legally binding on the United States, however, since Washington has not ratified the 1992 Biodiversity Convention and is not a party to the convention's Cartagena Protocol on the safety of biotech products, which came into force in 2003, conference spokesman David Ainsworth said.

Ahmed Djobhlaf, the secretary general of the Biodiversity Convention, said public pressure is mounting on companies to protect biodiversity and produce green products.

"This battle of life on earth we will not win if we do not have the active economic sector on board," he said." (Thanks D.)

I like this "active economic sector" bit. Is it a euphemism for "the private sector"? Good luck with that. Just look at the carbon credits scandalous scam to get an idea of what's in store for "life on earth" between the UN and the private sector.

Free market wont solve the food crisis

Sign the Petition: Free Trade is Not the Answer to the Food Crisis
In response to the current food crisis, Grassroots International and the Oakland Institute are asking you to sign a petition demanding that the International Financial Institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization) not use the crisis to push through more failed free trade policies. Such policies have exacerbated hunger worldwide by allowing among other things rich countries to dump their agricultural products on poorer ones that can't compete. Our petition urges the UN and FAO to instead put pressure on countries to:
  • Increase cash contributions for food aid geared towards local food purchasing in hard-hit countries
  • Develop sustainable agriculture systems through genuine agrarian reforms
  • End speculation on food as a commodities in the global financial markets
Be a part of real solutions. Sign the petition here. (Thanks Annie)

See other Briefing Papers, Policy Briefs by the Oakland Institute at