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Lebanese Olive Oil: Exploring Intricacies of a Sector With Potential

Zejd EVOO illustrates Lebanese growers' perseverance in producing high-end olive oil.

Farmer in northern Lebanon
Mar. 24, 2017
By Leila Makke
Farmer in northern Lebanon

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Irrevocably known as one of the cra­dles of olive grow­ing areas, Lebanon’s ances­tral her­itage of olive trees along with its micro­cli­mate and fer­tile rain-fed soil assem­bles aus­pi­cious con­di­tions for the pro­duc­tion of high-qual­ity olive oils.

All these favor¬≠able con¬≠di¬≠tions com¬≠bined, Lebanon still remains a low scale pro¬≠duc¬≠ing coun¬≠try. This stag¬≠na¬≠tion is due to many fac¬≠tors includ¬≠ing the civil war after¬≠math and the government‚Äôs apa¬≠thy towards its agri¬≠cul¬≠tural sec¬≠tor.

There are hardly any active coop¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tives in Lebanon and there is a seri¬≠ous prob¬≠lem of seg¬≠men¬≠ta¬≠tion in the indus¬≠try.- Youssef Fares

After a rag¬≠ing civil war that lasted fif¬≠teen years (1975‚ÄČ‚Äď‚ÄČ1990), Lebanon found itself way behind its com¬≠peti¬≠tors who in the mean¬≠time had dras¬≠ti¬≠cally evolved in tech¬≠nol¬≠ogy and devel¬≠oped an advanced agri¬≠cul¬≠tural stra¬≠tum. Meanwhile, in Lebanon, grow¬≠ers were still employ¬≠ing rus¬≠tic meth¬≠ods at pro¬≠duc¬≠ing their oil while the pro¬≠duc¬≠tion and export vol¬≠ume of the pre-war period haven‚Äôt been reached ever since.

Lebanon‚Äôs pro¬≠duc¬≠tion oscil¬≠lates between 10,000 and 30,000 tons of olive oil yearly depend¬≠ing on the crop. Its cul¬≠ti¬≠va¬≠tion cov¬≠ers over 58,000‚ÄĮhectares of land and about 41 per¬≠cent of its pro¬≠duced oil takes place in the north, fol¬≠lowed by the South with 36 per¬≠cent, 13 per¬≠cent in the Bekaa val¬≠ley, and 10 per¬≠cent in Mount Lebanon.

It wasn’t until the begin­ning of the 21st cen­tury that inde­pen­dent pro­duc­ers started being aware of their digressed state and acted upon their own ini­tia­tive, instead of wait­ing for an uncon­cerned gov­ern­ment to value the country’s asset in olive cul­ti­va­tion.

Agricultural engi¬≠neer and well-trav¬≠elled Lebanese entre¬≠pre¬≠neur, Youssef Fares is a fifth-gen¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tion pro¬≠ducer on a fam¬≠ily-owned, 24-hectare grove in Akkar-Baino, a dis¬≠trict in north¬≠ern Lebanon, near the Syrian bor¬≠der.

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In 2004, Fares turned his family‚Äôs grove into a nation¬≠ally and inter¬≠na¬≠tion¬≠ally renowned com¬≠pany, Olive Trade, which pro¬≠duces EVOO and olive-derived prod¬≠ucts under the brand name of Zejd (oil in ancient Phoenician).

Zejd‚Äôs EVOO is made with the endemic vari¬≠ety Soury, the name of which comes from the word Tyre or Sour in Arabic, which is a city located on the south¬≠ern coast of Lebanon, one of the port cities from where the Phoenicians began the tra¬≠di¬≠tion of com¬≠merce.

Although Lebanon doesn‚Äôt have a national ref¬≠er¬≠ence for olive col¬≠lec¬≠tions, it is esti¬≠mated that around ten olive vari¬≠eties are being cul¬≠ti¬≠vated, such as Samakmaki, Airouni, Baladi, Chami, Edlebis, with Soury being the most com¬≠mon vari¬≠ety in the region. The fruit gives a bal¬≠anced bit¬≠ter and pun¬≠gent taste. This fruit has an excep¬≠tion¬≠ally high oil yield of 20 to 25 per¬≠cent.

Fares is a con¬≠sci¬≠en¬≠tious pro¬≠ducer, and this has led him to employ an eth¬≠i¬≠cal phi¬≠los¬≠o¬≠phy in work that he wishes will spread among his coun¬≠ter¬≠parts.

Through Olive Trade, Fares val­orizes waste by pro­duc­ing by-prod­ucts from the olive press cake (solid) that are later sold in the mar­ket, such as olive husk logs. The olive mill waste (liq­uid), once prop­erly treated, are used in the olive orchards to irri­gate the soil.

‚ÄúOlive Trade‚ÄĚ were the pio¬≠neers at intro¬≠duc¬≠ing good envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal prac¬≠tices in the country‚Äôs olive oil sup¬≠ply chain. Ever since, more and more grow¬≠e.—W-ĘUBú/ôôßé(”‚.~‚/}ŪmĮ Ň rs have fol¬≠lowed the same pol¬≠icy. ‚Äč‚ÄúThrough Olive Trade, we pro¬≠tect our envi¬≠ron¬≠ment while being finan¬≠cially sus¬≠tain¬≠able,‚ÄĚ said Fares.

About 10 per¬≠cent of Zejd‚Äôs pro¬≠duc¬≠tion is organic, yet con¬≠sump¬≠tion of bio in Lebanon is a niche mar¬≠ket as organic prod¬≠ucts are still highly-priced for the Lebanese pur¬≠chas¬≠ing power. Demand is rel¬≠a¬≠tively small but ris¬≠ing.

Another com¬≠mon prac¬≠tice among grow¬≠ers in Lebanon is share¬≠crop¬≠ping (Daman in Arabic) as farm¬≠ing coop¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tives barely exist. ‚Äč‚ÄúThere are hardly any active coop¬≠er¬≠a¬≠tives in Lebanon and there is a seri¬≠ous prob¬≠lem of seg¬≠men¬≠ta¬≠tion in the indus¬≠try,‚ÄĚ explained Fares, ‚Äč‚Äúso my ini¬≠tia¬≠tive to share¬≠crop came from the need to fill a gap and by doing so to assure that every grower is aware of the qual¬≠ity require¬≠ments and the best meth¬≠ods to meet them.‚ÄĚ

Souri olives

Agricultural lands are poorly equipped and this weak tech¬≠ni¬≠cal defi¬≠ciency weighs on the quan¬≠ti¬≠ta¬≠tive and qual¬≠i¬≠ta¬≠tive out¬≠come of the grow¬≠ers. The bank¬≠ing sec¬≠tor pro¬≠vides only 2 per cent of cap¬≠i¬≠tal to an indus¬≠try that pro¬≠vides 8 to 12 per¬≠cent of the country‚Äôs GDP.

The inabil¬≠ity of the State to enforce a coher¬≠ent and apt pol¬≠icy holds back Lebanese grow¬≠ers from meet¬≠ing inter¬≠na¬≠tional require¬≠ments and stan¬≠dards.

In 2007, a project to draw a bill on geo¬≠graph¬≠i¬≠cal indi¬≠ca¬≠tions (GI) cer¬≠ti¬≠fi¬≠ca¬≠tion was launched at the Lebanese Ministry of Economics & Commerce with a team of Lebanese and Swiss experts. The bill got approved by the gov¬≠ern¬≠ment, but to date, it hasn‚Äôt been pro¬≠mul¬≠gated by the par¬≠lia¬≠ment. ‚Äč‚ÄúWe need to leg¬≠is¬≠late GI pro¬≠tec¬≠tion, come up with a long-term strat¬≠egy and cre¬≠ate the means to apply it,‚ÄĚ insisted Fares, ‚Äč‚ÄúGI pro¬≠tec¬≠tion is of national inter¬≠est. Our agri-food her¬≠itage must be pre¬≠served.‚ÄĚ

Another exam¬≠ple of the dis¬≠con¬≠ti¬≠nu¬≠ity in agri¬≠cul¬≠tural reforms is the cre¬≠ation of the first Lebanese national lab¬≠o¬≠ra¬≠tory for olive oil test¬≠ing. It was inau¬≠gu¬≠rated in 2014 by the Agricultural Ministry in line with a project funded by the Italian Embassy in Beirut. Today, the lab¬≠o¬≠ra¬≠tory remains dys¬≠func¬≠tional and non-accred¬≠ited.

Baino-Akkar Lands

The day Lebanese olive oil will obtain GI cer¬≠ti¬≠fi¬≠ca¬≠tion and be tested by an accred¬≠ited lab¬≠o¬≠ra¬≠tory, export will take a whole new dimen¬≠sion. Zejd‚Äôs high-end prod¬≠ucts are more tar¬≠geted to main¬≠stream European and American niche mar¬≠kets.

These two vital labels will ‚Äč‚Äúrad¬≠i¬≠cally facil¬≠i¬≠tate Lebanon‚Äôs export dynam¬≠ics,‚ÄĚ said Fares, ‚Äč‚Äúcer¬≠ti¬≠fi¬≠ca¬≠tions gen¬≠er¬≠ate bet¬≠ter work, which in turn results in bet¬≠ter export, all in a socially respon¬≠si¬≠ble man¬≠ner. They are an added value to the olive oil sec¬≠tor and being cer¬≠ti¬≠fied will help us stand out in a highly com¬≠pet¬≠i¬≠tive mar¬≠ket.‚ÄĚ

Despite basic imped­i­ments, the Lebanese olive oil sec­tor is more and more engaged in meet­ing high and eth­i­cal stan­dards to respond to both the con­sumer and the market’s con­scious demand.

House of Zejd, the first bou­tique to offer olive oil derived prod­ucts in Lebanon, has become an emblem for the effort that inde­pen­dent Lebanese grow­ers, such as Fares, put in val­oriz­ing their country’s assets and in pre­serv­ing their ances­tral her­itage.



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