Al Rawiya

(In)Sovereign Soils: Lebanon’s Entrapment in a Global Monopoly on Agriculture

The village of Khiam, near the city of Nabatieh in the Jabal Amil region. Lebanon. Photo courtesy of Staselnik under CC BY-SA 3.0

Since the late 19th century, the world has gone through three phases of global food regimes. The first lasted throughout the colonial era and emphasized Europe’s agricultural hegemony over colonized countries; the second took place after World War II and is marked by the Green Revolution and the rise of American hegemony on the import-dependent developing world; and the third one, the current regime, is often referred to as the corporate food regime. This food regime is a neoliberal regime characterized by globalization, corporatization, and trade liberalization, through which the global economy of food has been oriented towards the transnational and capitalist interests of imperial states, particularly the United States. As the food regime became globalized, so did farming and agriculture. The world was experiencing an increased demand for food which allowed agrochemical and biotechnology corporations to quickly form a monopoly over the global agriculture regime, advertising chemical inputs and genetically modified seeds to farmers all over. To match the demand and sustain themselves amidst a growingly-industrialized sector, small-scale and medium-scale farmers were forced to switch gears and let go of previous ‘natural’ agricultural practices, and instead adopt what is now known as ‘conventional agriculture.’ Conventional farming, or conventional agriculture, employs the use of synthetic or chemical pesticides and fertilizers to maximize agricultural production. Like any other country on the periphery of the global capitalist system, and particularly as a country that was previously under mandate rule, Lebanon experienced a fair share of transformation in its agricultural norms and behaviors since, replicating the global food regime within its own borders. This article explores the agricultural regimen in Lebanon following the second and third global food regimes, particularly looking at how imported inputs – whether they be agrochemicals or genetically modified seeds – affect Lebanon’s farmers as well as its agriculture and agro-economy.

Farmers delicately handling bags of fertilizer, thats is ready to be put to use.

The more chemicals… the better. 


For the larger part of the past 70 years, in tandem with American hegemony over agriculture, trade liberalization, and the rising demands for higher agricultural yield, farmers in Lebanon have heavily depended on chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in their agricultural practices. To farmers in Lebanon, and to a majority of farmers around the world, the more chemicals you use, the stronger and higher-yielding plants you have. Put simply, conventional agriculture favored quantity over quality.


That being said, many of the commonly administered fertilizers and pesticides are made of chemicals used for other arguably more dangerous purposes. For example, ammonium nitrate, the agent behind the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020, is commonly used as a fertilizer, releasing nitrogen into the soil to support plant growth. Another example is glyphosate, one of the most commonly used herbicides in the world. In 1974, Monsanto, previously one of the largest agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporations, had started marketing RoundUp, a broad-spectrum herbicide with glyphosate as its primary active ingredient. It is noteworthy that prior to releasing RoundUp, Monsanto produced Agent Orange, a herbicide used by the American military during the Vietnamese war as a chemical weapon. New research into glyphosate posits that the herbicide can be linked to several health issues, and subsequently, several countries and cities, such as Denmark, Saudi Arabia, Barcelona, and the United Arab Emirates have banned the total use of glyphosate, while others are incrementally banning it from different steps in the harvesting process to minimize its effects on crops. The Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture has still not banned glyphosate. 


These agrochemicals are not only dangerous for those who ingest the produce they have been sprayed on, but also for those who handle them. Many farmers have faced several health issues as a result of working with chemical fertilizers, putting both them and their families at risk of respiratory issues, kidney infections, and more. These different chemicals also pose a threat to the environment as they are absorbed by the soil, polluting both the land and different sources of water, particularly ground aquifers used for drinking. 

Heirloom Tomatoes thrive at Buzuruna Juzuruna’s sustainable farming school, nurtured in Saadnayel, Beqaa Since 2017. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Attieh

Local seeds no more. 


Nonetheless, chemical inputs are only one part of the conglomerates’ takeover on the global agricultural market. To produce higher amounts of crops, agricultural conglomerates manufacture and sell first generation (F1) hybrid seeds, also known as genetically modified (GMO) seeds. F1 seeds are formed by cross pollinating two genetically different plants to create seeds with higher yields. 


These seeds come with hefty legal disclaimers. The agricultural conglomerates in charge of producing the F1 seeds have patented them, which means that farmers must plant the seeds the year they were sold, and they cannot save them to be planted another year. Additionally, F1 seeds are made to survive for only one generation, meaning that even if the patent laws did not exist, farmers would not be able to re-cultivate the seeds and plant them during coming seasons anyway.


“The soil’s heavy exposure to chemical pesticides weakens its capabilities to sustain growing local, non-GMO seeds,” said Bashar Abu Saifan, founding member of Agrimovement, a movement that aims to achieve food sovereignty and improve the livelihood of citizens especially in marginalized areas, and Socio-Economic Action Collective (SEAC), which is aimed at building an inclusive solidarity economy in excluded and marginalized areas of Lebanon. “Farmers are forced to continue purchasing F1 seeds as local seeds are pushed to the side.”


Studies estimate that at least 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost worldwide, as farmers have turned to cultivating F1 plant offsprings, which are high-yielding and are genetically identical crops. 


Additionally, the nutritional value of F1 seeds is generally low compared to heirloom seeds, which are seeds from a plant that has been passed down from several generations. “Tests have shown that heirloom tomatoes have around 64 percent more nutritional value than tomatoes grown from F1 seeds,” says Serge Harfouche, a member of Buzuruna Juzuruna, an organic seed farm and school in Lebanon. 

Buzuruna Juzuruna’s Video Explores the Significance of Heirloom Seeds and the Benefits They Offer.

Entrenched in an endless cycle of debt


As GMO seeds and chemical pesticides and fertilizers became a necessary part of the agricultural process in Lebanon, farmers grew heavily dependent on them. These inputs are imported from leading agricultural corporations and international suppliers, and are then sold by input suppliers to farmers in Lebanon at high rates. As these products were expensive and crop revenues were not always reliable, farmers found that they were unable to pay for such items out of pocket, prompting credit facilities and Lebanese input suppliers to swoop in and ‘save the day,’ or in other words, throw farmers down an endless cycle of debt and despair. 


In order to sustain the import of goods in foreign currency, Lebanon’s central bank put in place a policy to peg the Lebanese pound to the US dollar, and then the banking sector created a policy through which credit facilities and input suppliers would offer credit to farmers in order to make the purchases. 


As a result, farmers almost always remained in a state of debt. “One of the farmers which I had been in contact with had informed me that according to his calculations, he was actually at a five dollar loss per day, taking into consideration the revenues he made and the money he owed to credit facilities and input suppliers,” says Abu Saifan. 


In a surprising turn of events, the economic crisis in Lebanon provided farmers with a little loophole, explains Abu Saifan. “Even though the Lebanese Lira was devalued, the government’s official exchange rate remained at the pre-crisis rate, LBP 1,500. Farmers were able to pay a part or the entirety of their debts off as a result.”


Nevertheless, the need for input soon had farmers racking debt once again, and input suppliers were more than happy to comply. By maintaining this dependency and ensuring that such cycles of debt remain, agricultural corporations ensure their position globally as leaders in the agricultural and food regime. The seeds cannot be planted without the associated agrochemicals, and the agrochemicals make the soil only potent for the respective seeds. Farmers are thus forced to continue buying this input from suppliers, who in turn continue to support major agricultural corporations through their purchases. 


“Letting go of conventional agriculture practices is hard. It would take farmers at least five years of practicing alternative agriculture methods for the soil to regenerate and for the land to be able to grow local seeds without chemicals again. This would mean at least five years of little to no revenue, which is not an easy thing to take on as a farmer,” says Harfouche.

Seed In A Box empowers Beddawi’s youth through sustainable agriculture, providing training, transforming them into trainers, and promoting self-sustained farming and produce sales to Beirut restaurants.

Rising hope in face of a monopolized agricultural regime

Fortunately, Lebanon has seen the rise of many collectives and cooperatives who are exploring and implementing alternatives to conventional agriculture that also take the farmers’ wellbeing and livelihood into consideration. As such, these movements reclaim agriculture from monopolizing networks, and work towards food sovereignty and putting the power back into the hands of the people on the ground. 

Agrimovement currently manages different agricultural development projects in Lebanon, focusing on maintaining plant biodiversity by encouraging the establishment of municipal nurseries. This movement also prioritizes the preservation of organic, natural, and heirloom seeds through their work, particularly through an initiative of theirs called Seeds in a Box. Through working with different farmers in Lebanon, Seeds in a Box is forming a nationwide network through which farmers can exchange local seeds between one another.

Erica Accari facilitates training sessions at Buzuruna Juzuruna, to enrich the knowledge of local farmers, gardeners, and vulnerable families in agroecology. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Attieh.

Another is Buzuruna Juzuruna, a farm-school which has been working on the collection, conservation, and distribution of local seeds. This non-profit association promotes and provides training on agroecology, a holistic and integrated approach to farming which focuses on reducing inputs, prioritizing soil health and biodiversity, as well as using free natural resources to promote plant growth.  


“Agroecology is more than an agricultural practice, it is a political act: it means that we are taking back the agency over the production of our food, and over the decisions of how to grow this food,” says Harfouche, “Lebanon has the needed natural resources and climatic conditions to move away from conventional agriculture and towards food sovereignty.”


The Socio-Economic Action Collective (SEAC) also takes a forefront in the struggle against conventional agriculture: it works on mobilizing local expertise and resources in creating a sustainable solidarity economy while focusing on the inclusion of all members of society. Their ultimate goal is to move towards an agricultural sector which supports local production through alternative modes of agriculture, and one that prioritizes farmers and gets rid of exploitative practices that benefit all but farmers. 

Farmers embrace age-old sickle harvesting techniques as they reap wheat using scythes at Buzuruna Juzuruna. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Attieh.

Moving away from conventional agriculture and reigning food regimes is anything but easy when international actors stand to benefit from the continuation and survival of such regimes. But the one thing that remains clear is the importance of community and solidarity. Acts of solidarity can start small: they can look like supporting local farmers and cooperatives by purchasing produce directly from their farms rather than from intermediary markets that exploit farmers and their labor. If you’re looking to plant something in your garden, aim to use local seeds that you can find at a farm or agricultural cooperative rather than genetically modified seeds. Although the latter may grow faster, the former benefits the soil and land for years to come, maintaining the soil’s biodiverse composition while reducing the environmental effects of chemicals. Providing small-scale farmers and cooperatives with streams of income can serve as a push towards slowly letting go of conventional agriculture and the slew of agrochemical accessories and hegemonic implications that come with it, allowing us to move once again towards sustainable agriculture as our ancestors once practiced centuries ago.

Michelle is a consultant and researcher. Her research focuses on matters concerning socio-economic rights and development in the MENA region, such as the right to health, food sovereignty, agriculture and more. She received her masters’ degree from Sciences Po, Paris in international affairs, with a concentration on human rights and humanitarian law.



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