Demand for Lebanese agricultural products soared in Arab Gulf markets as production in war-ravaged Syria plummeted, farmers and exporters said Wednesday.
Displacement, fuel shortages and lack of government subsidies are among reasons often highlighted by experts for stagnating Syrian agriculture.
Around 1.5 million Syrians were recently identified by the World Food Program as being in need of urgent food over the next three to six months
But as Syrian competition for Gulf Cooperation Council markets recedes, Lebanese exporters  are struggling to to meet demand because of a significant shortage in refrigerated trucks available for hire, union officials told the agriculture and public works ministers in a meeting.
The Transportation and Public Works Ministry requires foreign refrigerated trucks, including Syrian vehicles, to obtain a special permit to be able to transport products from Lebanon to GCC countries.
The measure had been taken last year to protect local shippers.
“We are ready to reconsider the permits within the next few days to increase exports in various sectors,” said Transportation and Public Works Minister Ghazi Aridi.
He said a meeting would be held in early January with Port of Beirut  officials to realize further measures to facilitate exporters wishing to export via sea shipping routes.
Antoine Howayek, head of the Farmers Association , told The Daily Star that despite increasing GCC demand for Lebanese citrus fruits, bananas and apples, benefits are going to traders instead of farmers.
“Farmers have not been impacted positively by the extra demand. Prices in the local market are still far below expectations and farmers can barely make ends meet,” he said.
Apple farmers, he added, are profiting by no more than LL600 per kilo, due to rises in refrigeration and labor costs.
Howayek added that many traders occasionally take advantage of low prices to buy large quantities, intended for export purposes.
“Increasing exports does not mean that the sector is doing well,” he added.
Agriculture Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan, who also spoke at the meeting, said the sector has been growing, in spite of challenges facing Lebanon.
“In spite of all difficulties on the political and economic front, agricultural exports increased in 2011 and 2012, after a series of measures taken by the government,” he said.
He said over 25,000 tons of apples were exported by sea this year.
According to the most recent available data the total of agricultural exports increased 2 percent to reach $152 million in the first nine months of 2012.
The Investment Development Authority of Lebanon was upbeat about the results due to the difficulties of exporting through Syria as shipment and insurance fees increase on higher security risks.
Separately, Hajj Hasan issued a decree requiring preliminary approval for onion and potato imports from all countries. The decree, immediately effective, also requires importers of Jordanian vegetables  and fruits to apply for permits at the minister’s office.