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‘Agricultural Jihad’: A Hungry Lebanon Returns to Family Farms to Feed Itself


ANTELIAS, Lebanon — The falafel shop owner leaned back and listed the keys to the Lebanese kitchen — the staples that help lend this country its culinary halo:

  • Sesame seeds for the smoky-silky tahini sauce dolloped over falafel and fried fish — which are imported from Sudan.

  • Fava beans for the classic breakfast stomach-filler known as ful — imported from Britain and Australia.

  • And the chickpeas for hummus, that ethereally smooth Lebanese spread? They come from Mexico. Lebanese chickpeas are considered too small and misshapen for anything but animal feed.

“We got spoiled,” said Jad André Lutfi, who helps run Falafel Abou André, his family’s business, a cheap and casual chain. “We’ve imported anything you can think of from around the world.”

So it went for years, until the country’s economy caved in, before the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed what was left of it and an explosion on Aug. 4 demolished businesses and homes across Beirut — to say nothing of the damaged port, through which most of Lebanon’s imports arrive.

The country that boasts of serving the Arab world’s most refined food has begun to go hungry, and its middle class, once able to vacation in Europe and go out for sushi, is finding supermarket shelves and cupboards increasingly bare.

Hence the politicians’ sudden cry: The Lebanese, they urged earlier this year, must grow their own food, waging what Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the militia and political party Hezbollah, has called “agricultural jihad.”

As cures go, victory gardens might seem a poor substitute for the economic and political reforms that international lenders and the Lebanese alike have demanded to halt the country’s collapse. But the alternative is bleak.

“Even making hummus at home is a luxury now,” said Mr. Lutfi, noting that a kilogram of Mexican chickpeas has tripled in price. “These are necessities. Now they’re becoming a luxury.”

The Lebanese pound has bled about 80 percent of its value since last fall, sending food prices soaring and forcing many households to accept food handouts as the share of Lebanese living in poverty rose to more than half the population.

The potential for hunger has only grown since the blast, which displaced about 300,000 people from their homes, stripped an unknown number of their incomes and left many residents reliant on donated meals.

Well before politicians began exhorting citizens to plant, a growing number had already done so.

Late last year, Lynn Hobeika cleared out a long-neglected family plot in the village where she grew up in the mountains northeast of Beirut.

Borrowing money from a friend, Ms. Hobeika, 42, planted enough tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, zucchini, strawberries, eggplant, greens and herbs to see her extended family through the winter and beyond. She also began making fresh goat cheese for extra income.

“This is what makes me feel blessed. I can grow my food,” she said, surveying the view from her garden — terraces of olive, fig, mulberry and walnut trees sloping down to a green valley. “It’s OK, we’re not going to starve.”

Though her father, who owned a fleet of school buses, had kept chickens and a backyard garden when she was young, Ms. Hobeika and her generation grew up expecting to lead comfortable city lives. She graduated from an elite university. She and her husband earned enough to send their son to private school.

Then their fortunes slipped along with Lebanon’s economy. Her income as a private chef slumped as other families cut back; her husband’s work — buying used cars in Europe and reselling them in the Middle East — dried up with the pandemic.

They moved their son to a free school. Ms. Hobeika sold her jewelry to pay for food.

The garden in the village of Baskinta became her family’s safety net. Her father and uncle were about to sell the land, which had been in the family for generations. But Lebanese banks have barred account holders from withdrawing more than a few hundred dollars per week, rendering any bank check “as worthless as toilet paper,” Ms. Hobeika said.

“You lose the land for toilet paper, or we keep it and we eat for months,” she said she told her uncle. “You’re not making money, but you’re saving money. Instead of going to the supermarket, you’re eating something fresh.”

Her cousin, Mansour Abi Shaker, also turned to fallow family land elsewhere, planting vegetables and raising chicken and sheep in a backyard enclosure shaded by mulberry and persimmon trees.

He had been a ski instructor, a factory manager and an operator of the generators many Lebanese depend on to fill gaps in government-supplied electricity. Then he lost all three jobs.

“Suddenly I woke up, and — nothing. Like all of Lebanon, I was jobless,” said Mr. Abi Shaker, 34, who lives in the village of Aajaltoun. “I never thought I’d do this in my life, but I have to survive. This is the only business I can live off of in the future.”

YouTube tutorials did not prepare Mr. Abi Shaker for the ups and downs of animal husbandry. Five sheep died, each a loss of about $500.

Nor did YouTube have much to say about the realities of Lebanon: few basic services, lots of corruption. With government-supplied water mismanaged at best and distributed according to political or corrupt motivations at worst, Mr. Abi Shaker had to buy his own tank.

Though Ms. Hobeika’s zucchini plants have delivered so enthusiastically that she will have enough to preserve or freeze for the winter, she, too, cannot get government water.

Then there is the climbing price of the imported dried cranberries with which she studs her goat cheese by hand; the power blackouts that make refrigerating it a daily ordeal; and the wildly fluctuating exchange rate, which has forced her to raise prices three times.

All seemed beatable until the explosion, which appeared to be the result of government incompetence and neglect. In despair after the blast, Ms. Hobeika was considering leaving Lebanon.

“I was just thinking that I was a success story. I tried,” she said. “But, enough — this is not a life. We’re only surviving, we’re not living. And I’m not seeing any future for my son here anymore.”

In returning to land last tilled by their grandparents, Mr. Abi Shaker, Ms. Hobeika and other newly minted farmers are also, in small measure, reversing Lebanon’s decades-long shift away from agriculture toward banking, tourism and services.

For decades, agriculture’s decline mattered little to consumers; the country could afford to import 80 percent of its food. But that outside dependence is no longer sustainable when hyperinflation is hollowing out salaries.

Though Lebanon grows plenty of fruit and vegetables, it lacks the land and technology to produce enough wheat and other staple crops for domestic consumption. Still, experts say, it could import less and export more specialty items.

“We’ll never be self-sufficient in what we produce,” said Mabelle Chedid, a sustainable farming expert and president of the Food Heritage Foundation. “But with globalization, we started to shift to other ingredients and other food items, and I think now it’s time to re-look at our traditional diet and really see the value of it.”

Instead of imported quinoa, self-sufficiency advocates plug Lebanon’s traditional whole grains — bulgur, a cracked wheat, and freekeh, a smoky roasted green wheat that, in the optimistic assessment of Shadi Hamadeh, an agriculture professor at the American University of Beirut, “is competing with quinoa in New York right now.”

Mr. Hamadeh and Ms. Chedid run a sustainable farming initiative that counsels new farmers to plant native Lebanese seeds instead of imported varieties that yield greater harvests but are not adapted to the environment.

Among the more than 130 people who have contacted them since the economic crisis began are those planting tomatoes on their balconies, new farmers with small plots and those investing their life savings in farmland.

But no one can feed a family from a balcony.

“It’s a joke,” said Chef Antoine El Hajj, Lebanon’s chief televangelist for cooking affordable, traditional food, dismissing the politicians’ sudden zeal for gardening. “It’s not realistic.”

It is not that he does not believe in homegrown produce — his extended family eats from his garden in the mountains above Beirut — but, he pointed out, there would be no need for it if Lebanon’s leaders had not steered it into an economic abyss.

“Lebanon isn’t a poor country, it’s a looted one,” he said. “Before you ask me to plant, give me my money! Give the money back to the people, and they won’t need anything.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

Apsny News

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