GHAZIEH, Lebanon: After the 2006 war, Chedli Kayouli was commissioned by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization to participate in an assessment of the livestock in the south and discovered the average bacterial count in Lebanese milk was so high that 30 percent would have been considered unfit for consumption in Europe. Though Lebanon’s four large dairy plants did have industrialized equipment to pasteurize and store milk when Kayouli arrived, three-quarters of the local raw milk they processed was hand-milked by small-hold producers with less than 10 cows, poured into plastic unrefrigerated containers and driven a minimum of three hours to the nearest milk distribution center – often under the beating hot sun.
“I got to the Bekaa and I saw that the situation of dairy production was catastrophic,” Kayouli recalled last week at the FAO’s offices in Zahle.
“I can understand this in countries like Niger or Burkina Faso, because they are not rich, but if you go to downtown to Beirut and see what people are eating in luxurious restaurants, it is really unacceptable.”
Armed with a $2.5 million grant from the Lebanon Recovery Fund, Kayouli decided to “declare a war to improve milk hygiene” in Lebanon and began industrializing about 3,000 small-hold dairies in some of the country’s poorest villages along Lebanon’s border with Syria.
The FAO organized mainly female-run dairies with less than 10 cows each in the Bekaa Valley, Hermel, Rashaya and Akkar into 35 new co-ops and appointed the farmers themselves to run in elections as representatives for each village. The FAO team then equipped 40 different milk collection centers with the proper refrigeration, pasteurization, sanitation and lab facilities to serve dairies in all of the project areas.
In order to break small-hold dairies’ dependence on milk dealers and allow the farmers themselves to dictate the prices they sell at, Kayouli set up a transportation network for the dairy co-ops to use to bring the raw milk to market. Finally, the FAO convinced large dairy-processing plants to pay a premium of LL100-LL200 per pound of clean milk.
Since the project launched, the volume of refrigerated raw milk produced in Lebanon has grown from 50 tons per day to 200 tons, accounting for 80 percent of the milk collected in the country. Lebanese dairy-processing plants have doubled the amount of milk they buy from local farmers, significantly cutting down their import bills.
“If we hadn’t made this intervention, maybe 25 to 30 percent of the small dairies in Lebanon would have sold their animals and collapsed,” Kayouli said.
The program has directly benefited 250 female-run home dairies, Kayouli said, such as the one Hajj Brahim and his wives Umm Abdo and Fatima operate from their home in Ghazieh.
They received $12,000 worth of equipment and training from the FAO last year and have transformed their first floor into a working milk processing plant, complete with sanitation equipment, refrigerated trucks and a lab to test the quality of the milk.
Though their production costs have increased, Umm Abdo told The Daily Star that they now earned 40 to 50 percent more for the raw milk they sell and demand from the mushrooming Syrian refugee population was high enough to offset the increased overhead.
Unfortunately, not all small-hold dairies are in a position to capitalize on the increased demand for raw milk, yet all are facing skyrocketing production costs stemming from the conflict raging across the border.
Kayouli said about 1,000 other Lebanese farmers in the areas covered by the project have requested milking machines, and between 4,000 to 5,000 poor dairy small holders in Mount Lebanon and southern villages which are beyond the scope of the existing program could benefit from dairy processing equipment.
But the FAO doesn’t have the funds to scale up their assistance yet, Kayouli said. Meanwhile, Syrian refugees have begun selling unprocessed raw milk inside the makeshift camps in the Bekaa Valley, introducing yet another health risk for the displaced communities.
Kayouli once again finds himself trying to develop one of the traditionally poorest trades in the nation amid war.
Before 2011, most of the dairy farms within 10 km of Syria crossed the border to purchase their animal feed at subsidized rates, vaccinate their livestock, and graze sheep and goats their during the winter.
Now, farmers have to buy feed, which accounts for 60 percent of total production costs, at more than double the prewar rate – though some have benefited from a 20 percent feed subsidy introduced by the Agriculture Ministry more than a year ago.
There are no accurate estimates of the number of livestock that have crossed the border since the conflict began, but Ziad Jabr, who trains beneficiaries of the FAO’s program on the appropriate hygiene and production standards, estimates that between 60,000 and 70,000 sheep and goats and about 5,000 cattle from Syria have entered Lebanon since 2011, amounting to 10 percent of the total cattle supply and nearly 30 percent of sheep and goats in the country.
For the past six months, Jabr estimates that about 250-300 sheep, cattle, and goats come into Lebanon from Syria each day.
The glut of livestock in the country has increased the demand for grazing land and feed and pushed meat prices down, causing some farmers to sell their animals for as low as one-third of the prewar value.
Jabr estimated that 98 percent of the livestock entering from Syria was sold because Syrians can’t afford to rent grazing land.
“So many Lebanese farmers are increasing their herds,” Jabr said. “But a lot of people have started to slaughter their herds because there is no land or they need cash. Syrian livestock are also going to slaughter houses. That’s why the price of beef is at least 15 to 20 percent below what it was in 2011.”
The price of sheep now changes almost daily from a prewar high of $6 per kilogram to an average of about $3 this year.
About a kilometer down the road from the Brahim family, a flock of hundreds of sheep and goats nibbled at the sparse patches of grass dotting a nearly barren former potato field. The animals are accompanied by a mix of Lebanese and Syrian herders of different ages and genders who had grazed and traded almost freely across their respective borders until the war began.
Abdul-Karim al-Weiss, from Saadnayel, said that over the past year the price of barley for feed had risen from LL300,000 per ton to LL450,00 and straw had doubled, while the market rate for a head of sheep has plummeted from LL400,000 to LL250,000 during the same period.
Weiss has not sold any of the 40 sheep in his herd, but is struggling to earn enough money to even feed them. Lately, his children, who work as day laborers in the Bekaa Valley, have chipped in to cover the cost of feed, but Weiss said he didn’t know what he would do when winter came and he could no longer take his sheep to Syria to graze for free or afford to pay for feed or grazing land in Lebanon.
Kayouli believes that the Syrian crisis would be an ideal time to develop the income-generating potential of farmers like Weiss, who are often clustered in the poorest villages along the Syrian border.
“It’s very important for [donors] involved in distribution to Syrian refugees to allocate at least 20 percent of the budget to support Lebanese local communities to increase the food supply and to make their intervention sustainable after the crisis,” Kayouli said.
“You can throw millions and millions of dollars and once the crisis is finished nothing is on the ground. Okay, you have distributed in the short term sugar and some rice and some food. This is very important ... but at least create some sustainable long-term and medium-term jobs on the ground.
“For the border village communities, which are very deprived and very poor and they are smuggling many legal and illegal commodities for living. if you don’t develop this border areas what can you do. ... If you do nothing, the poorest people are there and will continue to be a source of trouble. Today may be 10 people work in illegal smuggling, tomorrow maybe 100.”