BEIRUT: Recently appointed Agriculture Minister Abbas al Hajj Hassan sees international ties as a way to aid Lebanon’s ailing agriculture sector, as farmers struggle to support themselves.
The economic crisis has meant that farmer’s can no longer afford to import the seeds, pesticides and nutrients needed to grow their crops and produce decent yields, with some leaving swaths of land uncultivated. The scarcity and increased costs of fuel have made farm machinery difficult to run, as well as driving up the cost of transport to get their produce to main cities.
As farmers increase the price of fruit and vegetables to cover the costs, the already-struggling populace puts less fresh produce on the table. With a new government formed after 13 months of deadlock, many hope to see reforms and improvements as a result.
“All the details of agriculture, all the concern of the farmers and their needs, that the government can provide for – whether they are small or large enterprises – have not been seen to sufficiently till now,” Hajj Hassan told The Daily Star. “This is a new chapter, which means we need the help of all, from the farmers on the ground, to the unions and municipalities, to get a clearer picture of what is really happening and what exactly had led to a drop in the agricultural output of Lebanon, how we can improve it and get it up to the standards of other countries across the world.
“Currently, there are a lot of difficult problems. The primary issue is importing. There is a big difference in [the quality] of pesticides being used. Certain pesticides are essential to farmers and with the economic crisis today, farmers in Akkar, the Bekaa or the South need the best possible resources [to get the best yields],” he added. “Combined with the lack of electricity, fuel and water, this has become an issue for multiple ministries and all have a role to play in solving the agricultural sector’s problems.
Hajj Hassan’s background is not directly tied to the agriculture sector, but he hopes his experience in international relations will lend itself to the task.
Born in the town of Shaath in Baalbek in 1975, Hajj Hassan holds a doctorate in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Toulouse-1, France since 2013. He also holds a Master's in Law from the University of Perpignan, France, a Master's in International Relations and Diplomacy from Beirut Arab University, and a Bachelor’s degree in Law and Political Science from the Lebanese University. He has also worked as a journalist for multiple agencies.
Hajj Hassan described the fuel shortage as a “killing blow to Lebanese farmers,” who require it for planting and harvesting and without which will be unable to sustain the production this season. This could lead to produce left unharvested in the fields and a shortage of certain crops in the market.
“The Agriculture Ministry has been looking over strategies thought up by the previous Cabinet to combat the problems, and we have been doing our own research,” he said. “There are a lot of good ideas that could work and proposals for other countries; through communication with nations we have good relations with, to raise the amount of exports, which will in turn strengthen the position of Lebanon’s farmers and agriculture industry.
“Especially as harvest season is at our doors, for a wide variety of produce such as potatoes, olives and apples, etc ... so we must tackle this problem as fast as possible and work on our international ties.”
In April, Saudi Arabia banned imports of fresh produce from Lebanon after a shipment of pomegranates was found to contain over 5 million Captagon pills. Other drug busts followed and Saudi Arabia has been unwilling to remove the ban since
This has left Lebanese farmers, who would normally send their higher-end produce to the kingdom and make a healthy profit, with a surplus too expensive for the Lebanese market and the loss of much-needed income. Should the ban be lifted, many farmers would reap the benefits once more.
“I want to assure that we won’t leave a single avenue unexplored or resource unused to make sure that Lebanon is on the best of terms with all the Arab nations because what is holding us back right now is good relations,” Hajj Hassan said. “The agricultural industry is a red line because every Lebanese from poor to rich, regardless of if the government took action or not, needs daily sustenance and nutritious food in the form of fruits and vegetables.
“It’s up to us to restore these international relations and return Lebanon’s agricultural industry to its peak, for the benefit of the Lebanese people, be that with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, the UAE or Jordan,” he added. “Today we have nothing but hope because the picture before us has been black and bleak, but that does not mean we should give up on this hope. Like Prime Minister [Najib Mikati] said, we need effort and willpower to save the country and we should all work hand in hand together as a government. The work we do as a government will reflect on the nation.”