Written by Ninette Geagea
“A safe, affordable and plentiful supply of food is a national security issue.”— former congressman, Doug Ose.
Food security, as defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization, means that all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.1 Food insecurity, on the other hand, is a severe public health concern affecting approximately 2 billion people in the world .It is primarily concentrated in low- and middle-income countries particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region with 11.8% experiencing severe food insecurity.2
Lebanon, one of the smallest middle-income countries in the MENA region with the greatest refugee per head concentration globally, suffers already from extended economic and political challenges and has the percentage of its food secure households falling from 11% in 2015 to 7% in 2016 as stated in the Crisis Response Plan 2017-2020 by the United Nations in Lebanon3 and has been on this decline ever since then.
Today, in 2020, the country is wallowing in the peak of its economic crisis that has been building up for years, let alone the uncontrollable emerging pandemic, and the huge destructive explosion that swept away its beloved capital, Beirut. The 4th of August explosion ,which, according to Reuters , killed more than 170 people and displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes, destroyed the grain silos storing most of the country’s wheat supplies and severely damaged the port of Beirut, the country’s main entry point for goods imported via sea as it covers 80 percent of Lebanon’s maritime shipping traffic.4
Unfortunately, the devastating conditions are affecting not only the Lebanese population but anyone living in Lebanon including Syrians who came to Lebanon with the hope of escaping the harsh conditions overwhelming their own countries and Palestinians as well.
The ongoing economic crisis caused many people to lose their jobs and only source of living. According to a study conducted by the World Food Programme, nearly 30 percent of the Lebanese reported having lost their jobs since the outbreak of COVID-19 and containment measures that ensued. Out of those who lost their jobs, 42 percent were found to be between 20 and 24 years of age which is the typical age in which people save money and build their career. In addition, about 40% of working Palestinians, and 52%of Syrian working force in Lebanon lost their jobs. As for the people who did not report losing their job, 23 percent of the Lebanese workers reported recent salary reductions, 21 percent of the employed Palestinians reported reduced salaries, and about 18 percent Syrians witnessed a drop in their wages, stated the report of the World Food Programme.
Consequently, heads of households resorted to several coping mechanisms to make up for the lack of financial means to survive, such as borrowing money, minimizing essential non-food expenses, consuming less food products and ones of lower quality food, discontinuation their children's schooling, borrowing food and begging. In fact, around one in five Lebanese households have resorted to severe emergency livelihood coping strategies, including spending less on health and education, selling productive assets, and begging, reports the WFP.
It is clear that Lebanese, Palestinians, and Syrians used a variety of coping strategies to deal with the harsh conditions in an attempt to provide food for the household. For example, “spending less money on food” and “spending money from the savings” were highest among Lebanese compared to other groups because the Lebanese were the ones mostly forced to reduce their luxury.
Consequently, the modern Lebanese society consumption habits, shaken due to fluctuating prices of goods, drastically changed. Adapting to a new lifestyle has become inevitable. Lebanese people choose less expensive products; whereas, the majority of Palestinians and Syrians resort to asking for the help of friends and organizations. Additionally, sending children to work was found highest among Syrians, followed by Lebanese and finally Palestinians.
Furthermore, participants were asked to describe their food intake. Among the three groups, Syrians were the most to skip meals or decrease their intake to only one meal per day. This may be due in part to the place of residence of the Syrian refugees since they generally settle in Akkar and Baalbeck, two governates struggling with a lot of neglect from the state. Also, Syrians are less likely to be part of mutual aid networks in Lebanon because their presence is relatively new.
Moreover, the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) aggravated what was already the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. Prices of food products increased by 40 percent in the last three months,5 causing households previously living above poverty line (before October 2019) to feel more food insecure. Actually, when asked if they felt worried about not having enough food to eat in the last month, 75% of Syrian refugees were found to be worried, followed by 63% of Palestinians, and 50% of the Lebanese population. These number are particularly alarming when one realized they were collected in June 2020, prior to the Beirut port explosion which resulted in further losses in lives, jobs, and business.
Taking into consideration the economic crisis in Lebanon and the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19, we can clearly understand that food insecurity is increasing as more people are becoming poor and will do whatever it takes to make money. This fact will definitely be projected in the safety of foods in the Lebanese market and consequently food security will be further affected.
How is this related to food safety? Food safety refers to the conditions and practices that preserve the quality of food to prevent contamination and foodborne diseases and it falls under the big title of food security.
With all that is happening in the country, manufacturers will want to increase their profits and decrease their costs in any way possible even at the detriment of food safety and quality. An poignant example being the non-refrigerated van that was found transporting smuggled cheese in unhygenic conditions on the 22nd of April 2020, as documented by the Center for the Advancement of Media, Cultural and Economic.6
It is also worth remembering the notorious chicken scandal mentioned in the Daily Star Lebanon on the 22nd of June whereby the government confiscated 40 tons of expired chicken dating back to 2016-2017, which were ready to be put in the market.7
Despite knowledge of the safety hazards, people are likely to consume it anyway, thus increasing the rate of foodborne illnesses and public health costs with it. This is expected to then put further pressure on the country's economy and decrease food security further. It is a vicious cycle.
Upon discussing what is considered to be a chief public health concern, we find it extremely urgent to implement a clear and firm course of action. Along the many measures that must be taken, national and international support is needed to help increase food security by supporting local food production which will both create new job opportunities and boost the economy. We must also promote, volunteer, and take part in food banks, because as the American author Sally Koch once said: “Great opportunities to help others seldom come, but small ones surround us every day!”
Ninette Geagea is a nutritionist and food safety expert who graduated with honors from the Holy Spirit University in Kaslik. Currently freelancing as a food safety inspector and auditor, she is pursuing her master’s degree in Food Formulation and Security. Ninette gives short courses and trainings on Food Safety and Quality Management. In 2019, she was a food safety compliance officer at the Lebanese Ministry of Industries in the food factories' inspection project, within the framework of the food safety and quality plan. Aiming to integrate science and the public together, she is now focusing her studies on Food Security after acknowledging the severity of this public health concern.
1 FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO (2019). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019. Safeguarding against economic slowdowns and downturns. Rome, FAO.
2 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2017). The State of Food Insecurity in the World.
3 United Nations Lebanon (2017). Lebanon Crisis Response Plan 2017-2020.
4 Dahan, Maha El, and Ellen Francis. "Exclusive: Lebanon Navigates Food Challenge with No Grain Silo and Few Stocks." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 07 Aug. 2020. Web. 30 Sept. 2020.
5 More people living in poverty in Lebanon, says World Bank. (2020, February 9).
7 Daily Star Lebanon. "Lebanon Confiscates 40 Tons of Expired Chicken." 2020. Web. 30 Sept. 2020.
8 World Food Programme (2020) Assessing the Impact of the Economic and COVID-19 Crises in Lebanon - June 2020 – Lebanon.