THE COVID-19 pandemic has brought no end of comparisons to Spanish flu, which raced around the globe in 1918. For Lebanon, though, that decade’s def
THE COVID-19 pandemic has brought no end of comparisons to Spanish flu, which raced around the globe in 1918. For Lebanon, though, that decade’s defining event was not flu but famine: years of hunger that killed half the population during the first world war. History feels newly relevant as the country tips into depression and food prices soar. Trapped at home these past months, often in their ancestral villages, some Lebanese have tried their hand at growing their own food. On a rooftop in Beirut, tomato vines crawl towards the sky. A designer spends weekdays behind a computer and weekends plucking broad beans in the mountains. Young people swap tips on what to grow and when.
Famous for its food, Lebanon is better at preparing the stuff than producing it. Some 20-25% of workers are involved in agriculture (including part-time and seasonal work on family plots). About 13% of the land is arable, with microclimates suited to nearly every crop. Rolling fields in the Bekaa valley can grow winter wheat and summer vegetables. The Mediterranean coast supports a year-round rotation.
Yet agriculture generates less than 3% of GDP and Lebanon imports 80% of its food. Farms are often too small to benefit from economies of scale. One-third of factories in Lebanon make packaged food, everything from poultry to pickles. Again, though, almost 90% of these are small, family-owned businesses,…