Wheat: An Indispensable Lebanese Food Heritage
Aug 08 2022
In a time when the world is shifting to NFTs, cryptocurrencies, virtual reality, and digital social platforms, wheat remains a primary food product that has been a must in the foundation of the world’s diet for the past 10,000 years.
In the current century, our food system has become highly globalized and industrialized, and how our food is produced, distributed, and consumed has become unsustainable. The causes behind reaching this stage are many and might vary between regions.
In Lebanon, the farming sector, particularly in grains production, is threatened by environmental and global political factors, alongside the current internal financial crisis leading to a high dependence on food imports undermining national food security.
Wheat production is a dominant staple grain, supplying up to one-third of the calories consumed in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region (World Bank, 2009).
Wheat plays a vital role in the Lebanese diet and is used, depending on the variety, to make various types of cracked wheat, known as bulgur, other fermented in yogurt, kishk, alongside flour, which is used in numerous kinds of bread.
The Ministry of Agriculture mentions in a report released in 2010 that the average wheat consumption per person in Lebanon is approximately 130 kg per year, which is deemed the highest among cereals. Blominvest Bank’s study shows that Lebanon’s total annual wheat consumption is 450,000 tons, of which only about 130,000 tons are locally grown, and the remaining portion is imported (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [FAO], 2018). Numbers indicate that Lebanon imports 80 percent of its wheat from countries like Ukraine, where they have high production on numerous tracts of land.
Wheat production, particularly in the agricultural sector, is in grave danger. Alongside the political factors, the crucial challenges faced by farmers are many.
On the way to West Bekaa, an old local farmer, Abou Issa, stops by and explains what the farmers lack in the valley. Abou Issa explains that farmers depend highly on improved wheat varieties in the valley and have abandoned landraces. He defines wheat producers as residents in a country distinguished by a laissez-faire agricultural policy constraining farm development and innovation since the farmers lack water, seeds, chemicals, or organic materials, which are too expensive to afford. In addition, they lack access to substantial cooperatives, hindering their marketing strategies.
Abou Issa discloses that the future of wheat production in Lebanon is critically threatened since wheat farmers are an aging demographic, and most wheat farmers depend on government subsidies, but assistance is getting harder, especially after the economic crisis.
In addition, wheat landraces are essential for the sustainability of original identity and the added value of their by-products, kishk moghrabieh and bulgur.
Mr. Najib Saliba, the Production Manager of Rim Mills, one of the biggest non-conventional wheat Mills in the Bekaa region, explains that Lebanon won’t be able to produce the whole amount of wheat that the country consumes. Yet, Lebanese-grown grain is one of the best since the land grows soft and durum wheat. Both are considered essential raw materials for traditional products, including bulgur and moghrabieh, which Rim Mills produces and exports to Sweden and the United States. Saliba adds that they use imported wheat inside the mill, where it turns it into cracked wheat, and then package it to sell abroad.
“Sustaining wheat is crucial for maintaining the Lebanese culinary heritage,” Saliba adds. He makes sure to mention that if Lebanon loses cracked wheat production, other countries, particularly Turkey, are invading the international markets with products like bulgur and moghrabieh, and their prices will be more affordable. As a solution to this particular issue, the Marketing Manager at Rim Mills, Isabelle Saliba, considers that certification and quality control could play a vital role in this respect, urging producers to use wheat landraces to produce these by-products. Alongside that, Isabelle believes that promoting cooperatives would organize and link farmers to producers, raising the demand for local wheat varieties.
Preserving Agrobiodiversity & Boosting Food Security
To enable the sustainability of wheat production in Lebanon, additional study and research are required to determine producers using landraces because preserving landraces is essential for maintaining agrobiodiversity and boosting food security.
Founder of Nat Bio, Mario Mrad, aims to reintroduce to the market the world’s most ancient wheat, Einkorn, and the only wheat that has never been hybridized. Mario explains that wheat as a commodity crop is not financially viable in Lebanon, and people grow their grain for personal use, but local wheat doesn’t happen on an industrial scale since the land is used for other products, such as potatoes and onion.
Mario divides the challenges into two factors: the farmer and the farming process. He believes that convincing the farmer to grow a different wheat type is a challenge, mainly because some areas lack a gristmill since the country imports its wheat. The farmer also looks for the grain that makes more quantity, and Einkorn wheat doesn’t serve the highest quantity. Instead, its quality is one of the greatest since Einkorn has a much higher protein range (30% more than modern wheat) and less starch (15% less than modern wheat), along with a more elevated engagement of minerals and taste. The farmer will face several hardships, such as lacking good water and machines to harvest, not forgetting that finding the seeds is a challenge. On the other hand, the farming process requires a lot of steps before reaching its best phase.
The Lebanese Agricultural Research Institute (LARI) has at its disposal eight testing lands in an area of 280 hectares of agricultural ground. The stations are in agricultural areas where subtropical and temperate crops are produced. In such stations, research tasks are led, solving problems facing the agricultural sector in Lebanon.
Dr. Rola El Amil, the expert at LARI, clarifies that to ensure the best start for the wheat crop, the process spins around soil temperature, moisture, timing, depth, and the most critical part, which is seeding rates. The seed production department is responsible for contracts with seed production farmers and controlling all the agricultural practices in the farmers’ fields, from the sowing to the harvest. Dr. Rola considers that with all the plans being implemented, Lebanon can cover a maximum of 45% of its wheat consumption, and the main reason behind that is the lack of land. She adds that due to the unstable political situation, it is becoming hard to implement the projects, and many projects are stopped, especially the ones that focus on seeding.
For various causes, and if seeds were available, Lebanon could extend its wheat production, but the Middle Eastern country could not become self-sufficient. Starting with the unplanned urban expansion that has reduced the amount of land available for agriculture, although increasing cultivation area is possible, the country does not have enough land to be self-sufficient—moving on to wheat agriculture, which suffers from significant anomalies.
Crops vary significantly with weather conditions and the amount of rain every year, which affects the soil and makes wheat production volatile. Under certain conditions, extra irrigation can help increase output, but in most cases, farmers do not have the monetary means to invest in proper irrigation systems.
Lebanese Historian Charles Al Hayek mentions in an interview that all Lebanese stuffed food we eat today used to be stuffed with bulgur. Bulgur, moghrabieh, and wheat represent the Lebanese heritage, and neglecting this market means the country is close to relinquishing an essential part of its history, which represents its food heritage.
The Food System Challenge is implemented by the World Food Programme (WFP) and Berytech through support from the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
The program’s main outcomes are enhanced food security, a well-functioning local food system, enhanced efficiency and resilience of cooperatives and SMEs working across different streams of the food systems, and to increased employment opportunities especially for women and vulnerable individuals.
Karem Monzer is a journalist, filmmaker, and artistic activist. He holds a BA in Communication Arts and MA in Migration Studies, using his degrees for documentary production and cinematography, scriptwriting, editing, and content creation.