The Association for Lebanese Organic Agriculture (ALOA) held a conference on organic crops in Lebanon in Sin al-Fil on Thursday, partnering with UCODEP, TerCom, the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Bari (MAI Bari) and a collection of European NGOs in an effort to integrate institutional and community organic policies and raise general awareness of the field.
The conference, “Organic agriculture in Lebanon: current status and future prospects,” addressed the critical state of Lebanon’s organic sector.
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.
A number of factors have contributed to the relative lack of progress in the Lebanese organic movement. The leading cause maybe the absence of any comprehensive federal legislation or certification bodies. Organizers regularly noted that because there is no national standard many of the foods labeled as organic simply are not.
Lina al-Bitar, an opening speaker and representative of the International Center for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies – the parent organization of MAI Bari, said that the organic sector suffered from a “lack of legal infrastructure to frame the subject and push it forward.”
The European Union has strict organic regulations. The US also has federal organic standards, though they are less stringent than the EU’s. Lebanon has none. There is no universal certification or logo, and therefore no guarantee that products are actually organic. In addition, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not labeled or restricted in Lebanon.
A draft law, however, is in circulation and advocates expressed hope that it would be passed by May 2008. “Given the current political situation,” said Bitar, “we haven’t been able to accelerate the process.”
The draft law focuses on certification, regulation and import and export standards.
But the lack of legislation is not the only problem facing the organic sector in Lebanon.
Presenters noted that some consumers still associate a kind elitism with organic foods, which tend to be more expensive.
“Honestly, organics is a niche market,” said Marco Curzel, the project manager for TerCom, but he added that with organization and education “mature consumers” will recognize the benefits.
It is the farmers, however, that bear the greatest financial risk by choosing to go organic. Turning a farm organic often takes years and a certain amount of capital. And there are no government subsidies for organic farmers in Lebanon, nor is there a collective method for broad distribution. Many organic farmers rely on the aid of NGOs.
The lack of legal framework creates additional risks for the farmers. Farms are often in close proximity to each other in Lebanon, and an organic farm next to a farm that uses pesticides and the like can easily become “polluted.”
“There is no strict monitoring, no protections,” Tamburini said. Legal cases involving organic farms spoiled by genetically modified seeds or pesticides which spread from neighboring farms have surfaced in the US and Canada.
Bitar added that many “small farmers simple don’t have the motivation or know how to go organic.”
Nevertheless, there was a spirit of optimism as the conference. An estimated 2500 hectares of Lebanese farmland is organic and the nation boasts more than 330 organic operators, not inconsiderable numbers for a nation this size.
Tamburini said the local climate is perfectly suited for organic farming, and that Lebanese farms could potentially help meet growing global demand for organic products. Scandinavian nations are looking to the Med-iterranean for organic produce he added, citing recent agreements with farmers in Greece.
“The interest, the movement is moving,” Bitar said.