by Lombard Odier

Ancient seeds are the future for Lebanon's crisis-hit farmers

A sustainable farm is helping to tackle a wheat shortage made worse by war in Ukraine

By Antonia Cundy in Lebanon, for the Financial Times

In the fertile plains of the Bekaa valley, in eastern Lebanon, seven hectares of wheat stand tall under the sunshine. In one field, sprays of black florets cast a striking shadow over the golden ears; in another, the grains are long and thin, humped and yellow like an old camel’s tooth.

Unlike on many farms, where homogenous crops form a uniform mass, these wheat fields are diverse and visually distinctive because they have been grown at Buzuruna Juzuruna - a seed producer and sustainable farming school that cultivates heirloom seeds.

Buzuruna Juzuruna’s aim is to preserve and promote the use of ancient grains from the Shaam — the historic region along the Eastern Mediterranean coast . It has operated out of the small town of Saadnayel, in the Beqaa, since 2017.

And, as Lebanon has faced compounding crises — including a wheat shortage caused by the war in Ukraine, which supplies 80 per cent of the country’s imports of the grain— there has been a surge in demand for Buzuruna Juzuruna’s homegrown seeds and ecological methods.

“The number of seeds we’ve distributed has multiplied by three every year since 2017, but this spring is very, very intense,” says Ferdi Beau, a co-founder of the farm. “It’s no longer just people that are aware of organic farming and think it’s important for their health and the environment that come to us. Now it’s anybody, any kind of farmer.”

The desperation that has led many to Buzuruna Juzuruna’s doors began in 2019, when excessive debt caused Lebanon’s banking system to collapse. That sent the value of the Lebanese pound plummeting and threw the country into a financial and energy crisis, which was compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 Beirut port explosion.

For a country that imports the vast majority of its food and agricultural products, the Lebanese pound’s drop in value against the US dollar — which used to be equivalent to around 1,500 Lebanese pounds, but is now equivalent to around 26,000 — was devastating.

Many can no longer afford to eat, and farmers cannot afford to import the seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides needed for mainstream domestic production — a market that only satisfied 20 per cent of Lebanon’s needs, according to its agriculture ministry.

“National production completely failed, because the rising price of seeds, chemicals, pesticides, fuel… made it impossible for farmers,” Beau explains. “Originally, people would have had their own seeds and wouldn’t be reliant on international companies. This crisis has shown how dangerous it is to rely on importing seeds.”

Based on UN estimates, Lebanon’s cereal production in 2022 is expected to be 15 per cent below the five year average, similar to the drop-off recorded in 2020.

At Buzuruna Juzuruna, Beau and his team are working thirteen-hour days to meet demand for their seeds and knowledge, as hundreds of people scramble to secure their families’ food security. The farm now advises 800 families per year.

“There is much more work for us, there is a lot more interest in the farm because the proposition of Buzuruna Juzuruna is the local production of seeds, fertilisers, bio pesticides… to show you can make this stuff in Lebanon, and don’t have to buy it in US dollars,” Beau says.

He adds that demand has also risen because, previously, the small-scale production of their seeds meant they were more expensive than imported ones butm now, due to a conscious decision not to raise prices in line with the dollar, they are five to ten times cheaper.

However, the transition from mainstream, modern farming to an ecological model is not an easy one.

“It’s very scary for a farmer to change the way he’s grown for so many years, and now because there is so much insecurity in Lebanon for your family economy, to completely change your practice, it’s a very hard choice to make,” Beau explains.

Turning to heirloom crops can change a family’s fortunes, though.

In the Beqaa, where winters bring snow but summers bake the land dry, Lebanon’s energy crisis has decimated many farms, as oil or electricity is often required to power irrigation pumps. But Buzuruna Juzuruna’s ancient wheat grains — from Iraq and Syria — already more drought tolerant than their industrial counterparts, are grown using the baal method: without water.

This method can also be applied to local varieties of okra, and even water-thirsty crops, such as cucumbers, watermelons, and tomatoes.

“They are able to survive… They have roots that go very deep. You need to grow them early in the season, and the harvest is not the same, but it works out and so we do it for several years to make them more drought tolerant,” says Beau.

While Beau admits that it is often very hard to witness the suffering of so many, he is optimistic that Buzuruna Juzuruna's farming methods and heirloom seedbank — if replicated across the country — could offer a way forward out of this desperation.

“Through the financial crisis, the covid crisis, the fuel crisis and now this world crisis, [our farming] makes more and more sense. It's good that we started a bit before, in 2017, so we were already here when the crisis got that much more intense. We were already established and ready to respond — so that at least is a positive.”

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