AT A GLANCE
- Beginning: the Phoenicians, more than 2000 years b.c
- Production: 17,000 tonnes per year, but very variable year on year
- Consumption: 20,000 tons of olive oil per year
- Culture regions: Zgharta, Koura, Batroun, Akkar, Rashaya, El Foukhar, Tasbaya
- Producers: more than 110,000 farmers
- Total area cultivated: 56,000 hectares (22% of Lebanon’s agricultural land), 80% for oil, 20% for table olives
- Main varieties: Souri and Baladi, but also: Shami, Ayrouni, Smoukmouki, Shetawi.
- Harvest time: from September to December
- Certifications : Biological IMC (Istituto Mediterraneo di Certicacione)
- IOC: Member since 2016
Lebanon is a rich and complex country. By meeting with several Lebanese producers and experts, we were able to understand how social realities – 19 religious communities struggling to cooperate in a country of barely 10,500 km2 – as well as policies – a government totally apathetic towards the agricultural sector after 15 years of civil war – can have a deep impact on a key sector of the economy such as olive growing. Lebanon is the historical birthplace of the olive tree. Its Mediterranean climate and fertile soil are ideal for the production of olive oil, an oil that is used abundantly in the local gastronomy. However, the country is struggling to develop a quality product that would be competitive on the international market. How to explain this stagnation and what are the prospects for Lebanese olive oil?
A very variable quality of production
According to the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture, the Cedar Country is now planted with 13 million olive trees, mainly of indigenous varieties – Souri, Baladi – on 22% of the country’s total agricultural area. More than 50% of Lebanese farmers work in this crop, which means nearly 100,000 people.
Lebanese olive oil producers can be divided into three categories:
1) Traditional families who cultivate their olive trees on small plots of 1 to 2 hectares and produce their oil using rustic methods handed down from generation to generation. Tree pruning is often reduced to dead branches, irrigation is very rare (less than 10% of plots), soils are ploughed and fertilized with manure, and, to control the main parasite – the olive fly – pesticides spraying is the most popular habit, which is a costly legacy of the last century… The olives are harvested by beating the branches with sticks and the oil is pressed in straw bags at the communal mill, which is unevenly clean. These traditional producers are quite reluctant to innovate and do not care about quality standards.
2) Manufacturers who buy olives from different farmers and press them in large quantity and sell the oil under one or several brands. So do Willani and House of Zejd for example. Reversing traditions, they train farmers to modern techniques to increase their yield and invest in automated press lines. If the harvest is poor, they tend to mix Lebanese oils with imported oils, particularly from Syria or Tunisia. They are focused on quantity but are receptive to international quality standards for marketing and export.
3) New comers, who produce olive oil as a hobby alongside a more profitable activity. They question some traditions that do not allow international quality standards for extra virgin olive oil to be met. They often harvest olives that are still green, before the rainy season, and press their olives as quickly as possible in modern mills. They have high production costs and passion often prevails over profitability, as for Bustan el Zeitoun, Morkos, Mariam’s Gold, Zeitmantoura, Qadisha Valley Olive Oil, which we met from South to North of Lebanon.
The majority of Lebanese olive oil production therefore does not meet any quality standards, labelling or certification rules. There are mandatory quality criteria established by the Lebanese Standards Institute (LIBNOR) in 2010, but most traditional producers do not meet them. Extra virgin olive oils – and even more organic – remain a niche production despite the real commitment of a few enthusiasts.
A lack of industry organisation and cooperation
There is no proper olive oil industry in Lebanon, despite the importance of the sector to the country’s economy. This lack of structure, combined with laborious cooperation between olive growers, is detrimental to all stakeholders of the sector.
The government seems to have abandoned the agricultural sector to its fate and the few cooperatives that exist are struggling to find money to finance modern tools, as Gaith Maalouf, director of the Rashaya cooperative, explained to us: « In Lebanon, there is no agricultural policy and we struggle to work together, it is the Lebanese mentality! »
According to Youssef Fares, founder of House of Zejd, the lack of a public structure in the olive oil sector is problematic on several levels. On the one hand, for the representation of the interests of the sector’s stakeholders. They have little voice among public decision-makers and nothing moves to support them, particularly in facing the unfair competition from Syria. On the other hand, for the valuation of the different jobs of the sector: the farmer who improvises himself as a trader, delivery person or exporter, often does not include these costs in his final price, because he is desperate to sell his product. This breaks market prices and does not allow the different stakeholders to work correctly. Finally, in the search for distribution channels which is a major problem for producers: an organised industry would make it possible to promote Lebanese olive oil at a national or even international level.
Even more serious, it seems that, more than constraints, public authorities are placing real obstacles in the way of the sector’s development. Let’s share just a few examples picked from our meetings: the import of Syrian oils is not controlled, while export procedures are bureaucratic as well. The attempt to create an designation of origin label has been blocked in Parliament for two years. A last one, very symptomatic : Lebanese olive oils are banned from sale at Beirut International Airport’s Duty Free and no one knows why or how to change this.
At the international level, various aid programmes have been set up since the 1990s to develop the Lebanese olive oil sector and improve the quality of oils in accordance with international standards. UNDP, USAid, AFD with Daman Olive 2, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs with L’Olio del Libano 3, or ACTED European have invested millions of euros in Lebanon, notably for the installation of modern mills. But many experts blame the lack of long-term vision and poor monitoring of these aid programmes.
In short, everyone relies on himself and acts in its own interest, even if it means raising production costs and breaking market prices.
A market with little education in quality
In Lebanon, everyone has a relative or a friend of friend who produces olive oil. Most families – who consume an average of two 18-litre gallons per year – buy their oil in their close network, not on quality criteria.
Moreover, while olive oil is omnipresent in Lebanese cuisine, it seems that Lebanese consumers prefer rustic oils – yellowish in colour, rather cloudy, with a dense texture and often rancid – to the oils we know in Europe, rather clear and greener.
Thus, the national market for extra virgin olive oil is very limited and, according to the producers involved in this approach, there is still a lot of educational work to be done to create opportunities. Today, the fundamental problem is that, in the absence of a market, producing quality – and even more so in organic farming – is not profitable in Lebanon.
On the international market, the challenges are quite different. Lebanon exports its olive oil to countries with a large Lebanese diaspora, mainly the United States and the Gulf countries. But, outside this niche, olive oil from the Cedar country struggles to conquer other markets, because its price is not very competitive compared to other Mediterranean competitors and the reputation of Lebanese oils remains to be established.
How to get out of this vicious circle?
If Lebanese people lack team spirit, they certainly do not lack the entrepreneurial one. Stating the absence of collective or government initiatives, many producers are trying to innovate on their own scale, both in production and distribution.
Such is the case of House of Zejd, which has focused on a strong brand and a wide range of products to convert Lebanese and international consumers. On the shelves of its hipsters boutique in the centre of Beirut, you can find bulk organic oil, infused oils with a lot of flavours, several types of tapenades, olive jams and even cosmetics made of olive oil.
So does also Monsieur Joseph, who relies on private brands, i.e. bottling his oil under other foreign brands to expand his distribution.
In another style, on the Zouk el Taieb Saturday market in Beirut, Walid from Bustan el Zeitoun makes visitors taste his Italian varieties oils and explains his dream cottage project in the Saida region. A few stands further on, Adon & Myrrh presents its concept of olive oil from pitted olives, which won an award at the last national Horeca 2019 competition.
In southern Lebanon, in Deir Mimas, there are many initiatives to restore the reputation of this olive region and promote organic farming and ecotourism around the olive, particularly thanks to the precusors of organic olive culture in Lebanon Gaith Maalouf, Anouar Nakfour and Anne Fawaz and the very dynamic Mona Morkos and her Aghsan charity.
And everyone agrees that 2019 will be a good year!
To read more about olive oil in Lebanon :
- All our producers portraits in French are ici
- BD – Cours de survie
- BD – La querelle des Anciens et des Modernes
- BD – Sous protection divine
- BD – Fraternité libanaise
- An interesting book : Green Gold, the story of Lebanese olive oil
- A recent market study by the Lebanese government
- May 2018 ACTED report : Lebanon Olive Value Chain Analysis Report