Lebanon’s potato farmers prepare for hard season (From today’s Daily Star)
Growers and consumers set to suffer with the summer expected to be hotter than last year’s
ZAHLE, Lebanon: Potato planting season is in full swing in the Bekaa farmlands and Elie Samaha must rush off to his tractor where two women are seated on a low-hanging platform, waiting for the machine to grind into action so they can toss seeds into its path. …“We started planting the potato seeds yesterday, which is a bit later than usual because we had to wait for the storms to end,” said Samaha, referring to torrential rains that gripped the country last week.
… He will spend eight days planting seeds in this way across his 40 dunam potato farmland, with a workforce of three men and six women. … Last year, Samaha’s potato yields fell by more than 30 percent from the year before, leading the young farmer to bear some losses. The cause of this was higher-than-average temperatures in the summer and an unseasonably dry autumn which, experts say, was brought on by global warming.
If the experts are right, then Lebanon will see an even warmer summer and autumn this year and the potato harvest will worsen. “There’s never any security in farming,” said Bassam Kamar of Kattan Freezers, a company that stores farm products and owns large tracts of farmland. Kamar reports that half of his produce became spoiled by hot weather last year. The low potato yields spell problems not only for farmers, but for a whole economy where potatoes are one of its most important crops, with around 250,000 tons of the vegetable being exported every year. During the summer season, Lebanon is one of only two exporters of potatoes in the Arab region. Low potato yields also exacerbate a rapidly rising food import bill. Once considered to be the main food crop of the poor, imported potatoes now cost no less than $1 a kilo.
“We need to look at changes that are occurring globally, and especially dwindling global food supplies, and realize that we have to have greater support for the production of our basic necessities,” said Salah Hajj Hassan, an adviser to caretaker Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hassan. The adviser warns that food security problems, worsened by climate change, are imminent unless sound agricultural policies are introduced.
But it is not only the prospect of a hotter harvest season that preoccupies some potato farmers this year. 2011 will also be the first year in a decade when potato exporters will not receive payment from Export Plus, an agricultural subsidies program undertaken by Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL). IDAL launched Export Plus in 2001, making it one of the few agricultural programs to operate outside the Agriculture Ministry. Export Plus amounted to $30 million every year, however after it expired in 2005, a decision by the Council of Ministers cut the program’s spending by an incremental 20 percent every year, until it finally ran its course in 2010. “Removing the subsidy will cause major problems in the market,” said Kamar. He added that mounting costs of fuel, fertilizers, seeds, and labor – which he estimates to have increased more than 400 percent over the last five years – will make the removal of subsidies difficult to bear.
“The subsidies not only benefited the exporters. They also benefited the farmers, even the small ones, because as long as we’re financially comfortable, then we can pay our farmers. If we’re not, then they don’t get paid,” said George Nabhan, a merchant who exports nearly 5,000 tons of potatoes every year. Certain agricultural experts and small-scale farmers are hard-pressed to agree with Nabhan’s assessment.
Rami Zurayk, professor of agriculture at the American University of Beirut, argues that the subsidies program has catered almost exclusively to big exporters and at a large cost to the country in the form of water. Being a water-intensive crop, potato exporting at lower prices has caused water tables to drop dramatically, Zurayk wrote in his blog, Land and People. “I didn’t benefit from [the subsidies program from] IDAL. If there was any benefit it was very small and very indirect,” said Samaha. He added that it is increasingly difficult for small farmers like himself to get by in the farming industry, because even though the vast majority of farmers in Lebanon operate on a small scale, that is to say on less than 100 danums of land, they are often cash-strapped due to over-indebtedness.
Small farmers have to buy their materials at credit, explains Samaha, whereas large farmers can almost always pay in cash. Moreover, as large farmers are often also traders, they are able to procure their materials at a significantly lower cost than small farmers, he added.
“We’re still operating in Lebanon in the absence of agricultural policy,” said Zurayk. “And an absence of policy serves the powerful because it means there are no protections for the less powerful.”
With government expenditures in the farming sector at less than 1 percent of the national budget, agricultural policy in Lebanon is greatly lacking. However, Zurayk believes that the current Agriculture Ministry has made some important steps in a positive direction, and adviser Salah Hajj Hassan emphasizes that his ministry seeks to renew agricultural policy in a way which will protect small farmers.
But Zurayk is pushing for policy to move toward becoming “more radically pro-poor,” and one issue he is especially concerned with is the protection of farm laborers. Many of those who will toil potato farmlands over the next six months have trekked to Lebanon from Syria and they have set up tents on the farms, where they live with their families. The farm workers, who are mostly women, receive a paltry $10 for a working day that can last for 10 hours, especially during some of the hot summer days of the harvest season.
“For me, I like working on the farms because it is my passion,” said Shama Shaaban, a middle-aged Lebanese employee at one of the small farms who has been working on farms since she was nine. “But for those [migrant] women workers, they live a very difficult life. They leave their houses in Syria to come here, work on potatoes for three or four months, live in a tent with their families, with no bathroom and then leave – it is a very difficult life.”