Africa / Middle East

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 favor­able con­di­tions com­bined, Lebanon still remains a low scale pro­duc­ing coun­try. This stag­na­tion is due to many fac­tors includ­ing the civil war after­math and the government’s apa­thy towards its agri­cul­tural sec­tor.

There are hardly any active coop­er­a­tives in Lebanon and there is a seri­ous prob­lem of seg­men­ta­tion in the indus­try.- Youssef Fares

After a rag­ing civil war that lasted fif­teen years (1975 – 1990), Lebanon found itself way behind its com­peti­tors who in the mean­time had dras­ti­cally evolved in tech­nol­ogy and devel­oped an advanced agri­cul­tural stra­tum. Mean­while, in Lebanon, grow­ers were still employ­ing rus­tic meth­ods at pro­duc­ing their oil while the pro­duc­tion and export vol­ume of the pre-war period haven’t been reached ever since.

Lebanon’s pro­duc­tion oscil­lates between 10,000 and 30,000 tons of olive oil yearly depend­ing on the crop. Its cul­ti­va­tion cov­ers over 58,000 hectares of land and about 41 per­cent of its pro­duced oil takes place in the north, fol­lowed by the South with 36 per­cent, 13 per­cent in the Bekaa val­ley, and 10 per­cent 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.

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Agri­cul­tural engi­neer and well-trav­elled Lebanese entre­pre­neur, Youssef Fares is a fifth-gen­er­a­tion pro­ducer on a fam­ily-owned, 24-hectare grove in Akkar-Baino, a dis­trict in north­ern Lebanon, near the Syr­ian bor­der.

In 2004, Fares turned his family’s grove into a nation­ally and inter­na­tion­ally renowned com­pany, Olive Trade, which pro­duces EVOO and olive-derived prod­ucts under the brand name of Zejd (oil in ancient Phoeni­cian).

Zejd’s EVOO is made with the endemic vari­ety Soury, the name of which comes from the word Tyre or Sour in Ara­bic, which is a city located on the south­ern coast of Lebanon, one of the port cities from where the Phoeni­cians began the tra­di­tion of com­merce.

Although Lebanon doesn’t have a national ref­er­ence for olive col­lec­tions, it is esti­mated that around ten olive vari­eties are being cul­ti­vated, such as Samak­maki, Airouni, Bal­adi, Chami, Edlebis, with Soury being the most com­mon vari­ety in the region. The fruit gives a bal­anced bit­ter and pun­gent taste. This fruit has an excep­tion­ally high oil yield of 20 to 25 per­cent.

Fares is a con­sci­en­tious pro­ducer, and this has led him to employ an eth­i­cal phi­los­o­phy in work that he wishes will spread among his coun­ter­parts.

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.

Olive Trade” were the pio­neers at intro­duc­ing good envi­ron­men­tal prac­tices in the country’s olive oil sup­ply chain. Ever since, more and more grow­ers have fol­lowed the same pol­icy. Through Olive Trade, we pro­tect our envi­ron­ment while being finan­cially sus­tain­able,” said Fares.

About 10 per­cent of Zejd’s pro­duc­tion is organic, yet con­sump­tion of bio in Lebanon is a niche mar­ket as organic prod­ucts are still highly-priced for the Lebanese pur­chas­ing power. Demand is rel­a­tively small but ris­ing.

Another com­mon prac­tice among grow­ers in Lebanon is share­crop­ping (Daman in Ara­bic) as farm­ing coop­er­a­tives barely exist. There are hardly any active coop­er­a­tives in Lebanon and there is a seri­ous prob­lem of seg­men­ta­tion in the indus­try,” explained Fares, so my ini­tia­tive to share­crop came from the need to fill a gap and by doing so to assure that every grower is aware of the qual­ity require­ments and the best meth­ods to meet them.”

Souri olives

Agri­cul­tural lands are poorly equipped and this weak tech­ni­cal defi­ciency weighs on the quan­ti­ta­tive and qual­i­ta­tive out­come of the grow­ers. The bank­ing sec­tor pro­vides only 2 per cent of cap­i­tal to an indus­try that pro­vides 8 to 12 per­cent of the country’s GDP.

The inabil­ity of the State to enforce a coher­ent and apt pol­icy holds back Lebanese grow­ers from meet­ing inter­na­tional require­ments and stan­dards.

In 2007, a project to draw a bill on geo­graph­i­cal indi­ca­tions (GI) cer­ti­fi­ca­tion was launched at the Lebanese Min­istry of Eco­nom­ics & Com­merce with a team of Lebanese and Swiss experts. The bill got approved by the gov­ern­ment, but to date, it hasn’t been pro­mul­gated by the par­lia­ment. We need to leg­is­late GI pro­tec­tion, come up with a long-term strat­egy and cre­ate the means to apply it,” insisted Fares, GI pro­tec­tion is of national inter­est. Our agri-food her­itage must be pre­served.”

Another exam­ple of the dis­con­ti­nu­ity in agri­cul­tural reforms is the cre­ation of the first Lebanese national lab­o­ra­tory for olive oil test­ing. It was inau­gu­rated in 2014 by the Agri­cul­tural Min­istry in line with a project funded by the Ital­ian Embassy in Beirut. Today, the lab­o­ra­tory remains dys­func­tional and non-accred­ited.

Baino-Akkar Lands

The day Lebanese olive oil will obtain GI cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and be tested by an accred­ited lab­o­ra­tory, export will take a whole new dimen­sion. Zejd’s high-end prod­ucts are more tar­geted to main­stream Euro­pean and Amer­i­can niche mar­kets.

These two vital labels will rad­i­cally facil­i­tate Lebanon’s export dynam­ics,” said Fares, cer­ti­fi­ca­tions gen­er­ate bet­ter work, which in turn results in bet­ter export, all in a socially respon­si­ble man­ner. They are an added value to the olive oil sec­tor and being cer­ti­fied will help us stand out in a highly com­pet­i­tive mar­ket.”

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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