Author:Tuttle, Robert

After months of bickering between farmers, food processors, food importers and various government ministries, Lebanon has imposed a range of new restrictions on food and agricultural imports, designed to shield Lebanon's fragile but important agricultural sector from the threat of cheaper imported produce.

The new food and agriculture measures symbolise a near 180 degree turn for a government that has, since the end of Lebanon's 15 year civil war, strictly steered its economy along a course of free market, laissez-faire capitalism.

The new measures will ban imports of most produce already produced domestically, such as fresh milk, vegetables, eggs, olive oil and chicken. Other items, like watermelons, avocados, reconstituted and powdered milk and tropical fruits will be subject to increased customs duties.

Some imports will be allowed into the country on a seasonal basis while products considered essential for Lebanon's food processing industry, such as ice cream, tomato paste, jams and ketchup, will be regulated in consultation with the ministry of industry.

An intensive lobbying effort by businessmen and the food processing companies diluted an original list that included far more banned items.

The new import restrictions have also led to splits within the Lebanese government itself, the most striking between Minister for Agriculture Shawki Fakhoury and Minister of Economy and Trade Yassin Jaber.

The crux of the controversy lies, in large part, on a disagreement over the source of Lebanon's agricultural problems and, correspondingly, over the best strategy to deal with the situation.

The agricultural sector employs 40 per cent of the country's population and yet only produces 20 per cent of its food intake. Suffering from severe shortages of infrastructure and markets for its produce, agriculture has been one of the slowest sectors of the economy to recover from the country's civil war. Areas that are heavily reliant on agriculture, such as the western Bekaa valley, are also some of the most impoverished regions of the country.

A lowering of Lebanon's...

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