Food, Farming, and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring

Food, Farming, and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring

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The wave of anti-government protests that swept through the Arab world from December 2010 on started to transform politics and society in the Middle East. The protests came as a surprise to many observers-- but not to Rami Zurayk, an veteran Lebanese agronomist and social activist who had been analyzing the collapse of traditional agricultural livelihoods in the Middle East since the late 1980s. In 2007, Zurayk started writing the "Land and People" blog, which charts food-policy and agricultural policy issues throughout the Middle East. Food, Farming, and Freedom presents his choice of the best of the posts in the blog from 2007 through April 2011. It concludes with a chapter tracking the early months of the Arab Spring.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781935982197
Publisher: Just World Books
Publication date: 05/15/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Rami Zurayk is an agronomy professor at the American University of Beirut and a longtime activist for political and social justice. Born in Beirut in 1958, he has witnessed two Israeli-Arab wars, one protracted civil war, one major Israeli invasion, one Israeli retreat, and one Israeli defeat. He has published over a hundred articles, monographs and technical reports on agriculture, food, environment and education, covering numerous countries throughout the Middle East.

Read an Excerpt

Food Farming and Freedom

Sowing the Arab Spring

By Rami Zurayk

Just World Publishing, LLC

Copyright © 2011 Rami Zurayk
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-935982-14-2


Food Sovereignty, Politics, and War

Food is a critical issue in the Arab World, an issue that could have tremendous political leverage, especially in times of crisis. The region faces huge food-security challenges. Chronic aridity severely curtails agriculture, making it one of the most food-insecure regions of the world. Most Arab countries import at least 50 percent of their calorie needs, representing between 11 and 34 percent of total goods imported. Poverty rates are also high, with more than 25 percent of the people subsisting on less than $2 a day except in the Gulf States. Poverty is mostly rural, with 76 percent of the poor living in rural areas. The poor of the Arab World, similarly to those of other countries of the so-called Developing World, "lack education, control little land and capital and have a below average nutritional status." Population growth is rapid. Political instability and conflicts continue to plague a large number of countries, further undermining food security. Moreover, most Arab countries score very low on food sovereignty, as most of their food, especially their staples, originate from imports; and market forces rather than policy shape their food systems.

Lebanon shares many of these characteristics. Although better endowed with water resources than most other Arab countries, its agricultural sector has been in free-fall for many decades. In a press conference in autumn 2010, the minister of Agriculture admitted that the country imports 85 percent of the food it consumes. More importantly, the small farm sector is bearing the brunt of this decline, as an increasing number of farmers are leaving the countryside and joining the cities' misery belts.

In spite of the clear connections between poverty and food and the tremendous impact food production can have on the livelihood of the poor, few leftist analysts from Lebanon or from the Arab World have actively studied the links between politics and the governance of the food system. This analysis could provide pertinent entry points to create partnerships based on a new internationalism of farmers, workers, and peoples. In this chapter, I collect the blog posts that raise these issues, which I wrote in an attempt to better understand the exploitative relationship that market capitalism imposes on resources as well as on humans to accumulate wealth.

Two issues recur in this chapter. One is the impact on Arab land and people of the Zionist colony-building project that has been going on since the early 20th century. In the context of the struggle against Zionism, land and people occupy a very important place. Resistance fighters, who were also farmers or sons and daughters of farmers, repelled Israel from Lebanon in 2006. They defended their lands; they blended into the landscape, to which they are organically linked. For Israel, destroying the landscape of Lebanon will uproot its people and reduce their steadfastness. The fact that Israel sowed millions of cluster bombs in South Lebanon after the cease-fire was agreed upon has to be read in this light. Destroying the landscape of Palestine is also one of Israel's colonial tools: Israeli policy prevents the people from constructing a livelihood and forces their exodus. This goal is how the systematic uprooting of olive trees in the West Bank and Gaza has to be interpreted. Farming is a way of life rooted in the land; local food production is a way of resisting military and economic hegemony. These are the essential messages of this book.

Although it is true that recurrent Zionist aggression has taken its toll on local food and farming in Lebanon, the country's own political system has been the main agent of destruction of rural society and landscape, through its blind adoption of the most extreme version of the market fundamentalist creed, which has also served to reinforce the traditional control structures and keep power in the hands of a few rich families. The head of the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL) stated in 2009 that free-market economy and laissez-faire were Lebanese traditions. Laissez-faire and free-market policies have benefited large capital investors in Lebanon, but they have contributed to the degradation of rural life, society, and landscape and to the collapse of the country's rich, millennia-old local food system.

* * *

The Roots of Inequality

Beirut, April 8, 2007

Lebanon's cultural and environmental heritage is deeply rooted in its rural society. Our food traditions, our folklore, and our landscape are kept alive by small family farmers. As rural people become impoverished and marginalized, they leave their lands, and our culture, society, and environment erode. This erosion has tremendous implications: Poverty creates despair, which is conducive to political violence. The dissolution of the ties between people and land creates nations of passers-by, countries with employees but without citizens. This situation is a great part of Lebanon's problem.

If it's any consolation, all countries of the Mediterranean basin (and most countries of the world) have experienced the same deruralization phenomenon, coupled with the fragmentation of farm property and the decline of rural society. Countries of the North Mediterranean (such as Spain, France, and Italy) have developed and implemented policies to deal with the problem, with a certain measure of success. Countries of the South Mediterranean are still struggling with the issue, and their situation appears to be desperate. They have been unable to reduce the number of the rural poor in spite of the adoption of policies that favor agriculture. Why?

Analysts have studied the causes underlying the breakdown of small-holder family farming and the resulting impoverishment and migration in many developing nations. General consensus indicates that these can be attributed to a set of interdependent national and international issues. Prominent among them are poor governmental support services to agriculture, especially to the small holder; insecure land tenure; and the adoption of the neoliberal economic-policies package built around free trade and market fundamentalism. All of these apply unquestionably to Lebanon.

Trade-based agriculture, based on "comparative advantage" and "export-oriented agriculture," has been Lebanon's approach to food long before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) adopted the approach as part of its structural adjustment package. The founding fathers (mostly bankers and merchants) saw Lebanon as a big trading agency. They fought in parliament for minimal taxation on imports of food and other products to increase the volume of trade and their own profits. Although they looked down at rural people, they were not opposed to farming per se: They invested in silk production, which required the planting of large areas of mulberry trees to replace the traditional food systems. They imported wheat and other foods and sold them to the farmers. And when the "allied" blockade was imposed on Beirut during World War I, and trade routes were cut, tens of thousands of rural poor died from famine and malnutrition because, unlike silk worms, they could not eat mulberry leaves. This situation caused a massive wave of migration and immigration that heralded the new urban Lebanon. Eventually, the silk trade died, and so did the mountain. Sometime in the 1950s, apple orchards started replacing mulberries as a crop for export to the emerging oil economies. This strategy was successful in the 1960s and '70s, until global trade intensified. Today, Lebanese apple growers compete with U.S. apple producers on the Lebanese market!

One would think that food export would be a good way to even out the hopelessly ailing import-export balance of Lebanon and to inject hard currency into the country. This result is only partly true. Although the potential impact of food exports on the balance is likely to remain small (the gap is several orders of magnitude wide), an agricultural strategy based on export includes many disastrous drawbacks. Producing efficiently for export requires a critical mass of assets, including land, capital, and knowledge that is beyond the vast majority of the small landholders, family farmers. Large-scale, export-oriented agricultural production is built on monocultures, which cause tremendous environmental damage due to the abuse of agrochemicals and to their impact on biodiversity. It is also a major cause of social dislocation, as poor rural people are driven out of farming to become underpaid farm workers who do not benefit from any form of social security and to whom labor laws do not apply. It favors large, dehumanized agri-businesses at the expense of small farming communities. Export-oriented farming is good for business, but only that of a few people.

Intrinsic to the concept of export-oriented production is the notion of "comparative advantage." This is something we love to brag about in Lebanon, without really capturing the implications. Due to a combination of environmental, technical, and economic reasons, some countries can produce food commodities more competitively than others. The country in question is then encouraged to produce more of this specific commodity for export, while importing basic food commodities produced elsewhere. Syria has standards of living and incomes that are lower than those of Lebanon. It has mountains, plains, water, cheap labor, and state subsidies for agriculture. It is mostly a rural nation. Syria therefore has serious comparative advantages over Lebanon. In principle, we should not complain about the "dumping" of food products from Syria, because we practice a liberal trade policy. Cheap imports from Syria (or Jordan) reduce the cost of food, which is, in theory, good for the consumer. In fact, it turns out that Syria is not one of our major food-import partners. It is, however, one of our main food-export partners (we export to and through Syria). Our three main food-import partners in 2007 were the United States, the Netherlands, and France. They are the countries that have the most comparative advantage over us. They sell us most of the food we eat.

Farmers in industrialized countries, such as our major import partners, acquire their comparative advantage through state subsidies. European Union (EU) and U.S. agricultural subsidies are widely recognized as the biggest source of distortion to the world food trade, resulting in the catastrophic collapse of small-holder farming in developing countries (Oxfam has a long-standing campaign on the issue). For example, in 2005, the European Union paid &8364;300 million a year to tomato processors — mainly in Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal — representing 65 percent of the value of the entire crop. This subsidy enabled these countries to be the world's leading exporters of tomato paste. The European Union also subsidized its fruit juice — processing industry, mainly in Italy and Spain, at a rate of more than 300 percent, or &8364;250 million a year. Growers from Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, and South Africa could have earned $40 million a year more if the European Union removed its subsidies and the world juice price rose by just five percent.

Yet governmental policies (when they exist) and international aid to developing countries, including aid to Lebanon, continue to base their projects on the production of commodities for export based on "comparative advantage" while promoting imports from the industrialized countries. Recently, the Lebanese agricultural private sector (represented by the Chamber of Commerce, Industry, and Agriculture, to which most small farmers do not have access), together with the Ministry of Agriculture, agreed on a six-points program to revive agriculture. Each one of these points focuses on improving exports, with not a single mention of the small-holder family farmer. Needless to say, the large agribusiness operators are thrilled!

Civil society activists in the industrialized North are constantly lobbying for a fairer trade environment for the developing nations. The final declaration of the Euromed Civil Forum in 2006 included a strong call to give the Mediterranean Partner Countries (Lebanon included) the right to protect their food security instead of insisting on "reciprocity" in ongoing and future trade negotiations. Meanwhile, we in the developing nations enter into "reciprocal" trade agreements that cannot be advantageous to us. Take the European Partnership Agreement, which Lebanon signed five years ago. The agreement opens up our markets after a grace period of five years to food products from the European Union, with taxes not exceeding five percent, while the European Union opens its markets as soon as the agreement is signed (reciprocity). With a small proviso: Lebanese products have to abide by EU quality standards and must work around Brussels's bureaucracy. No small producer can satisfy these requirements! But wait, it gets worse: The European Union is not one of our main food-export partners — Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are. The European Union is, however, our second-most-important food-import partner! So we have agreed to open our markets to countries from which we already import food by the billions. In return, they have agreed to open their markets to us, a country that does not, and will not easily, export to them. That is a sweetheart deal! No wonder they gave us &8364;10 million to "improve the sector" in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce, Industry, and Agriculture! They'll get their money back in one week, and the large Lebanese agribusiness companies will be able to increase their wealth. Meanwhile, the small-holder farmers will continue to get poorer, because these policies do not target them directly and effectively.

Herein lies the great paradox of agriculture, farming, and rural society: Support to agriculture as an economic sector via market-fundamentalist policies, without distinguishing between poor and rich, can increase the returns from the sector, but it will create more inequalities. As a matter of fact, research (by the World Bank!) has shown that in countries where land is distributed unequally (as in Lebanon), policies to increase agricultural income can cause more inequality in income distribution if the poor are not adequately targeted. This imbalance is attributed to the fact that inadequate land distribution pushes the poor out of the agricultural sector and into the non-farm sector and leaves the rich to benefit from sectoral support. Indeed, the beneficiaries of such policies are often big landowners producing crops aimed at mass marketing and for export. They have most benefited from IDAL's Export-Plus program and the Kafalat government — supported loan programs. In Lebanon, we use the taxes from the poor to subsidize the rich. No wonder the poor are upset!

* * *

Why South Lebanon Remains Unfarmed This Year

Sinay, May 1, 2007; first published in SCOOP

Much of the land in South Lebanon has remained unfarmed this year. In spite of the active de-mining efforts deployed by the United Nations and by local NGOs, it has been difficult to plough, sow, and harvest, as only a fraction of the million and a half Israeli cluster bombs have been removed. These bombs were sown by the Israelis in August 2006 in the last 72 hours of the war, despite the fact that a cease-fire was agreed upon in the UN Security Council. Now why would the Israelis do something like that?

A close look at these bombs will show that they were manufactured around the time of the vietnam War and that they were long past their expiry date. It has been conjectured that Israel was trying to save on its military waste disposal bill by dumping the expired ordinance into Lebanon. This would not be the first time that Israel would have shown total disregard for the environment and for its neighbors. There is a long-standing dispute between Cyprus and Israel over the issue of Israel's disposal of toxic wastes, which affects the entire Eastern Mediterranean. The only reason why neighboring Arab governments have never caught up with this issue is their constant state of political coma. During the 2006 summer war on Lebanon, Israel deliberately bombed the fuel tanks of the Jiyeh power plant, spilling 15,000 tons of fuel and causing the largest oil spill in the history of the Mediterranean. The Lebanese government complained timidly, the United Nations ran a couple of workshops, and that was the end of that.

However, the reality is that this "dumping" is much more than an environmental crime. Cluster bombs are like big containers with hundreds of small, hand grenade — sized, often brightly colored bomblets inside. When dropped from the air, they spread over an area several hundred square meters wide and explode before reaching the ground, causing the largest possible number of casualties. In expired ammunition, bomblets do not explode in the air. They reach the ground, where they effectively become anti-children mines. Because the bomblets have odd shapes and bright colors, it is children who are most attracted to them and who tend to be the first victims. Hundreds of children have been killed or maimed since August 2006. There are new victims every week, and they are not mentioned in the press anymore. The cluster bombs have become a fact of life — like traffic accidents.


Excerpted from Food Farming and Freedom by Rami Zurayk. Copyright © 2011 Rami Zurayk. Excerpted by permission of Just World Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Foreword by Rashid Khalidi,
Author's Introduction,
1. Food Sovereignty, Politics, and War,
Travels, Part 1: Around Lebanon,
2. The Food Crisis of 2007–2008: Lebanese and Arab Perspectives,
Travels, Part II: Erbil, Kurdistan Province, Iraq,
3. Environment, Resources, and People,
Travels, Part III: Aleppo, Syria,
4. Disillusionment in Development,
Travels, Part IV: Damascus and the Jabal al 'Arab, Syria,
5. The Arab Uprisings,

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