November 22, 2020
Where is Lebanon’s next meal coming from?
Is Lebanon facing a food crisis?
Yes, one that is caused by a multitude of factors including the financial crisis, devaluation of the local currency, the pandemic and the most recent tragic blast in the Beirut port, that all came together to create—unfortunately—the perfect storm. We have a shortage of food supplies, limited agricultural production and mobility of food during repeated lockdowns, and a shortage in dollars, all leading to an unreasonable spike in food prices.
What is the effect of losing the grain silos in the blast of August 4?
The destruction of the Beirut port, a key economic artery of the country, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Lebanon imports more than 80% of its food basket, and the majority of the imports go through the port. The grain silos represented the only grain reserve for the country, supposedly protected in the safest and most secure location. Yet it was lost in a few seconds. This is what we call the loss of your emergency plan, causing further shortage in grains, especially wheat needed to make bread, a main staple of the Lebanese food basket. The grain silos were estimated to have a 120,000-ton capacity, but now all has been deemed inappropriate for human—or animal—consumption, and there is currently work being done to discard these grains in a safe manner.
Is the major threat to Lebanon’s food security the destruction of the port, or the devaluation of the currency?
Both, and also more. In less than one year, the Lebanese lira has devalued by roughly 80 percent, crippling the supply of food and primary materials needed to produce food. With the dollar/foreign money shortage in the country and the lack of subsidies to farmers, especially small-scale farmers, it has become too difficult to produce food locally—just when we need it most to ensure food security and sovereignty.
The loss of the currency and the grain reserves cut the nerves and arteries of Lebanon. The remaining oxygen is humanitarian assistance and the unreliable and ever-dwindling support of the Lebanese central bank, which will likely not be maintained beyond the end of this year.
All of these factors contribute to the ongoing skyrocketing of food prices, with the inflation of food prices going over 336 percent (as per CAS).
What is the effect on average households?
The loss of purchasing power is dramatic and mostly felt by middle-and lower-income groups, who earn in Lebanese lira and have no other sources of income in foreign currencies. Overnight, people lost access to their money reserves and, at the same time, the value of their earnings dwindled, while the prices of all consumables and products have increased, including food supplies. People have been stripped of their safety nets and left to fend for themselves with limited-to-no support from the government. Lebanese families, migrant workers, and refugee/displaced populations are increasingly dependent on humanitarian aid and assistance from international and local NGOs to survive.
What can households expect in terms of what things cost and what is available in grocery stores?
Food prices continue to rise in the Lebanese market, including locally produced fruits and vegetables. The price of red meat and chicken skyrocketed during the summer and early fall, moving beyond the reach of the majority of households, who had to resort to consuming more grains and lentils. Although recently the caretaker ministers of economy and agriculture released a new list that specified the fixed prices of meat products, we still see fluctuations in prices and the lack of adequate monitoring in the market. The challenge remains that these prices may continue to be subject to the dollar-Lebanese lira exchange rate (on the black market) and to the predicted change in food prices, particularly if the subsidies for the import of fuel and basic food items were to cease in the coming months. This would increase the price of food items even further, which would strain all households and limit their access to healthy and nutritious food.
What are the major challenges to Lebanon's food security?
It is a deeply complex issue, but we can say the challenges are on all fronts, all at once, which means if the response is not well-coordinated, it will be at best just short-term, unsustainable solutions and patchwork remedies. The challenges are at all fronts (food availability, food access, food utilization and food stability).
In terms of food availability and food access, we have probably addressed most of these factors so far. A recent report published by the World Food Program and the World Bank showed that 40% of Lebanese households were having difficulty accessing markets to satisfy their food and other basic needs as of mid-2020, and this was primarily the result of lost purchasing power.
Food utilization is another pillar of food security, and when we talk about adequate food utilization and security, we are talking about food diversity, variety, quality, and safety. Given that Lebanon is struggling with increasing rates of COVID-19 cases on top of dwindling purchasing power, the consumption patterns and behaviors of its people have been shifting. This affects their diet diversity and quality, and subsequently their nutritional and health status. The most vulnerable, including infants, children, pregnant/lactating women, seniors, as well as impoverished refugee and displaced population groups are the most affected. Food safety also remains a serious problem in our local context, including meats that have been found in several studies to be contaminated with foodborne microorganisms and pathogens and exhibiting antimicrobial resistance properties which causes complicated and not-easily treated foodborne illnesses.
And last, but not least, food stability, where we, unfortunately, tick every box whether it is due to political instability or stagnation, volatile economy, environmental challenges that affect our ability to produce food locally and sustainably, and food price fluctuations.
What, if anything, can be done?
Mitigating the challenges should start with addressing the root causes. Otherwise, all we’re doing is trying to remedy worst-case scenarios. We need to consider:
- First, the economic situation is heavily dictated by the absence of political will and commitment to form a cabinet and to start the necessary reforms in all sectors. Without these changes, the situation of the country is predicted to worsen, and the recovery from the pandemic and all other crises we endured this past year will be longer and harder.
- A food security strategy is still lacking when we need it most. Recent news are reporting that a food security committee was formed, but it has yet to meet. This is a national security priority and delaying the committee’s formation is not an option anymore, but rather a moral and ethical obligation for the people of Lebanon and all the hosted communities.
- Necessary measures can include monitoring and stabilizing market food prices, subsidizing essential food commodities, and expanding the existing social welfare and food assistance programs to provide essential assistance in the short-term while also supporting livelihoods in the long-term.
- Lebanon’s beacon of hope is the willingness of its youth, universities, civil society, and international partners to invest in the limited yet precious resources of the country by providing monetary, technical, and human support.