Going Hungry: The Empty Plates & Pockets of Lebanon

The Lebanese people are trapped in a nightmare. The deadly, mysterious COVID-19 pandemic has joined forces with the worst economic recession in decades to send food prices skyrocketing and household incomes nosediving. The result: almost half of the population struggles to put the most basic foods on their tables.

The first of Triangle’s policy paper series following the COVID-19 pandemic, critiques Lebanon’s complacent attitude to food security and proposes ways to uphold the old Lebanese adage that “nobody ever dies from hunger.”

The Lebanese people are trapped in a nightmare. On top of the deadly, mysterious COVID-19 pandemic, they are grappling with an economic collapse so complete that, based on government estimates, it will take over 20 years to fix. Now virus and recession have joined forces to send food prices skyrocketing and household incomes nosediving. The result: almost half of the population struggles to put the most basic foods on their tables.

In truth, the looming spectre of widespread starvation is not a bad dream, but a reality deeply rooted in political decisions made over decades. Once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, Lebanese agriculture now contributes just 3% of annual economic growth, despite providing jobs for one quarter of the national labour force. Farmers contend with woeful infrastructure, directly resulting from a chronic lack of state investment, and have weak bargaining positions against wholesalers and retailers. This makes Lebanese-made food neither particularly abundant nor cheap, with imported foods often being more affordable.

Lebanon’s food supply chain will always rely on foreign products to a significant extent, given the country’s limited land and water resources. However, the ongoing currency shortage has made imports much more expensive, exposing the critical limitations of overwhelming import dependency – a disappointing legacy for a region which pioneered domesticated wheat some 9,000 years ago. Now international politics is also threatening Lebanon’s supply lines, as key food producing countries consider imposing export bans and quotas amid COVID-19-related panic.

To make matters worse, powerful importers and traders can drive up prices on both local and imported foods through cartel behaviour, capitalising on Lebanon’s non-existent or toothless consumer protection and competition laws. With the deck stacked so shamelessly against consumers, it is no wonder that low-income households across Lebanon were already food insecure, long before pandemic and recession struck.

Lebanon’s unacceptable lack of food security calls for immediate action. In the short term, the government must crack down on price-gouging and expand social safety net programmes through cooperation with the Banque du Liban (BDL) and international aid organisations. Simultaneously, a comprehensive strategy for long-term food and nutrition security is desperately needed. This plan should improve infrastructure to boost local production, whilst weeding out non-productive wholesalers and corrupt captains of industry in favour of the small-scale farmers that add true value.

Lebanon can only navigate these perilous times by – quite literally – going back to its roots. With some state support, farmers could easily boost food sovereignty by growing more nutritious staples such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas, which have long been native to the region. The current economic order has driven Lebanese and refugees alike to the brink of starvation. The new Lebanon needs to put the people first, which starts with guaranteeing basic, universal food and nutrition security. Nothing less will allow this generation to uphold the old Lebanese adage that “nobody ever dies from hunger.”