On September 25th 2015, Lebanon adopted Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which comprise of 17 development goals that aim to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. Among those goals is SDG2 which, through five targets, seeks to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.” While malnutrition is presently not a grave concern for the small Levantine nation, ensuring the dimensions of food and nutrition security (availability, access, utilization, and stability) are sound has, at times, proved difficult.
Known for its mercantile history, Lebanon’s markets are one of its lifelines: up to 80 percent of the country’s food needs are imported in any given year. Being market savvy, however, comes with both blessings and drawbacks. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, the political tempo has been high; governments have come and gone and policy has been fragmented, not least with respect to food and nutrition security. Tax bases have remained low while successive governments have adapted to spending requirements through borrowing, mostly from local banks. The political turmoil has resulted in economic growth not keeping pace with rising debt which now stands as one of the highest in the world compared to GDP. Partially as a result, social safety nets remain underdeveloped and the poverty rate has remained at around 30 percent.
The official unemployment rate was 11 percent before the arrival of Syrian refugees, yet unofficial estimates place the figure at twice that amount. Between 2011 and 2015, the size of the labour force is thought to have increased by about 50 percent due to the influx of Syrian workers. As a result, youth unemployment is estimated to have increased by 50 percent since 2011, while unemployment among Syrians who are active in the labour market is estimated at 30 percent.
Lebanon’s markets never fully opened up to benefit from free trade because, among other factors, key market reforms such as those related to regulating competition and intellectual property never materialized. As a result, Lebanon has a consumer market typified by low concentrations of suppliers together with exclusivity rights and little to no market regulation. As of this writing, Lebanon is still working to pass the legislation required to enter the World Trade Organization.
Heavily indebted, Lebanon is also import dependent on the very foods that it consumes the most, such as bread and other cereals. And while it can maintain a reasonably sufficient supply of food, economic access to food and nutrition creates a raft of issues, especially during price shocks.
In 2007/2008 commodity prices sky-rocketed; food and nutrition security in Lebanon faltered.
The government responded by re-introducing subsidies on wheat, bread and flour that it had been phasing out, but the effects on economic access to food were still enormous. In 2008 alone average food prices in Lebanon rose by 18.2 percent and have only recently begun to enter negative territory. The Lebanese felt these prices hikes both in their wallets and their bodies.
As a result of the 2007/2008 price shocks, it is estimated that, on average, micronutrient levels for eight key vitamins and minerals in the Lebanese population fell between 16.3 percent (Calcium) and 2.8 percent (Vitamin C). These reductions were registered at elevated levels in urban areas, where over 80 percent of Lebanese reside.
Naturally, the ability of the poor to afford food in this context was also affected. Between 2004 and 2011, the amount of money required to attain minimum caloric needs in one year had risen by 75 percent to around USD 987. Indeed, economic growth and food inflation boomed from 2008 up until 2011, when over one million poor food insecure Syrians arrived in Lebanon seeking refuge from the conflict raging next door.
While all this was taking place, the Lebanese proved resilient, primarily through the workings of private initiatives, government efforts as well as support from the country’s comparatively large and wealthy diaspora. The country was able to rely on its markets, its diaspora and its local agricultural production which provides Lebanon with food sufficiency in most fruits and vegetables.