BEIRUT: Ask a Lebanese shopper how safe they think the fruit and vegetables they buy are and a typical response is one of wariness.
The latest wave of mistrust probably stems from reports that sewage water has been used to irrigate crops, as well as the effects of an E. coli outbreak in Europe.
But the most enduring concern is probably that Lebanese farmers use dangerous amounts of pesticides.
“I only buy certain local fruit and vegetables,” says one customer in a Beirut Spinney’s Sunday evening. “I would never eat local apples or tomatoes; I’ve heard they are dangerous.”
The perception can be traced back to 2009, when reports emerged that dangerously toxic pesticides were being used on fruit and vegetables in the country. Since then, the Agriculture Ministry says it has taken several steps to regulate pesticides coming into the country.
Late last month the ministry held a workshop on the issue, following which it announced that it would be implementing the use of natural pesticides on apples, grapes, citrus fruits and apricots, in a bid to “restore the balance of ecosystem diversity.”
Antoine Howayek, the head of the farmers union, says that farmers have become much more self-regulating since the 2009 scandal, despite the fact the government has little or no regulation over the agricultural industry. “The farmers themselves are very worried about the pesticide residues,” he says.
A growing group of farmers in the country are also moving away from chemical pesticides entirely, and embracing an organic output.
“We have seen an increase since around a year ago … after the ministry began finding harmful pesticides,” says Khalil Haddad, the general manager at one of Lebanon’s two organic certifiers, LibanCert. He says consumers are now more aware of and health environmental issues connected with non-organic foods.
“We have the demand here,” he says.
However, organic is still a nascent industry in Lebanon. Until 2003, there were no bodies based in the country qualified to certify produce as organic, until IMC, an Italian certifier began working here. In 2006 a second certifier, LibanCert, established themselves. Between them they have now certified around 280 producers as organic.
Lebanon is in some ways ideally suited for the production of organic fruit and vegetables to flourish, says Kamal Mouzawak of the farmers market Souk al-Tayeb, which includes several all-organic producers.
“It’s actually easier than in some neighboring countries, for example Turkey or Jordan, because those countries are large and have much industrialized agriculture,” he says, “ whereas the only industrialized spot in Lebanon is in the Bekaa. The rest are smaller farms, which are still working more with traditional and green techniques, so it’s easier for us.” Mouzawak agrees that more and more producers and consumers have been embracing organic products in recent years.
For Ghassan Rishani, who has a small farm in Shoueifat run on organic principles, the motivation is simple.
“I want people to recognize the difference between true vegetables and those that use pesticides,” he says. “I know very well the traditional farmers, what kind of pesticides, and what kind of fertilizers they are using to create their products.”
Although he says his farming is fundamentally organic, Rishani is not currently certified by a recognized organic body, a process he says would be expensive. Haddad says the government should do more to support both certifiers and producers to become officially organic.
The first step, he says, would be for Lebanon to set its own standards for organic produce, which would be able to adapt to local producers’ needs. LibanCert and IMC currently work to EU regulations. “This may encourage people to have a higher trust in Lebanese organic products.”
At the moment, Haddad says, demand for produce is based largely in Beirut, while producers are in the north or the south, pushing up travel costs for organic farmers.
A second problem farmers in Lebanon face, Haddad says, is that many of the organic pesticides and other imports are not currently available in Lebanon, and are expensive to ship in.