BEIRUT: The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization launched an action plan for Lebanon Tuesday that aims to support local farmers and reinvigorate the sector, as one of the agency’s top officials warned that agriculture had “not been receiving the attention it deserves.”
Their proposals, which include vaccinating livestock and protecting natural resources from exploitation, would address the enormous toll that the Syrian war and resulting refugee influx has taken on Lebanon’s agriculture industry.
“Restoring rural livelihoods and agro-systems is indispensable in the context of food and livelihood security,” Abdessalam Ould Ahmed, FAO’s assistant director-general and regional representative for the Middle East and North Africa, said in an agency statement.
“Behind each family pushed into poverty and hunger, there are whole systems collapsing that need to be protected, restored and strengthened. Agriculture cannot be an afterthought. It has not been receiving the attention it deserves.”
Although the agriculture sector only accounted for 4 percent of Lebanon’s gross domestic product in 2011, according to the FAO’s “Plan of Action,” immense regional variations behind that figure point to the Syrian crisis’ disproportionate effect on Lebanon’s poorest.
For example, the report says that, in northern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, agriculture is responsible for generating up to 80 percent of the local GDP. These same areas, which were also the poorest in the country before the outbreak of the Syrian war, now host just over 60 percent of UNHCR-registered refugees.
The result of this additional strain, the report concludes, has been wide-reaching. One such consequence has been the influx of a large number of unvaccinated livestock.
“Estimates indicate that 250 to 300 sheep, goat and cattle cross into Lebanon from Syria every day,” the report states, adding that given veterinary services in Syria collapsed in 2012, animals will not have been vaccinated against diseases – including those that humans can catch – for over a year.
“It’s not that what you are eating right now is unsafe,” explained Bruno Minjauw, FAO representative in Lebanon, “but that if we don’t do something the risk of you eating something bad in the future is high.”
As “most of the low-income families in these districts [the north and the Bekaa Valley] rely on livestock for food security and nutritional and economic status,” according to the report, there is a daily growing risk of an outbreak that would affect both the health and livelihoods of Lebanon’s poorest.
FAO is countering this by throwing itself behind a nationwide vaccination drive that is especially focused on the vulnerable border regions. The campaign – which is targeting foot-and-mouth disease, lumpy skin disease and ovine rinderpest – began last summer and has so far managed to reach 70 percent of the estimated livestock in Lebanon.
Another threat to the industry is the effective closure of the Syrian border and the associated transport difficulties caused by the civil war.
As a result of intense fighting in the regions surrounding Lebanon, the usually cheap supply of essential agriculture goods such as animal medicine, feed, seeds and fertilizers has dried up. According to the report, some farmers are unable to access all of their land, while others are resorting to abandoning their livestock due to the associated costs.
Over the past few months, the number of shells and rockets landing in crop-intensive areas such as Hermel and parts of Baalbek has also increased, making it dangerous for farmers to go about their daily work.
Other issues the FAO is seeking to address include the depletion of natural resources such as grazing grass and water, the threat of food insecurity for both the local population and refugees due to decreased production and increased demand, and the plunging wages caused by the enormous number of Syrian laborers who are willing to work for less.
For the FAO, however, there is a silver lining. The report concludes: “Experience from around the world has shown that GDP growth from agriculture has been twice as effective at reducing poverty ... compared to GDP growth originating from other sectors.”
It adds that the action plan, if it receives enough funding, should help local communities “cope with the pressure, feed themselves and strengthen their potential to assist the refugees.”