Agricultural products  from war-ravaged Syria are flooding the Lebanese market, north Lebanon farmers said Monday, threatening to take matters into their own hands if the government fails to protect local agriculture.
“Produce is flowing through all border crossings in massive quantities, and this will reflect very badly on our ability to market our produce,” a statement by an association representing Akkar greenhouse farmers said. “Syrian produce is being dumped into the market in an unprecedented way.”
Prices of vegetables have deteriorated quickly over the past few weeks, falling even below their production costs, the statement said, calling on Lebanese authorities to immediately clamp down on Syrian imports .
“We will not remain silent amid this situation. The government should do something or we will be forced to block the path of Syrian vegetable trucks and force them to return to where they came from,” the statement added.
Under the Greater Arab Free Trade Area agreement  signed by Lebanon, the country is obliged to grant Syrian and other Arab produce and goods free access to its market.
But the expiry of the “Agricultural Calendar,” which allowed Lebanon to restrict imports of agricultural products in their respective seasons following the 2006 conflict with Israel, made things much worse for local farmers, Antoine Howayek, head of the Farmers Association, told The Daily Star.
On top of its failure to lobby the Arab League to extend the calendar beyond 2011, Lebanon is not even exercising import safety and quality standards, which can help protect farmers from unfair competition in an indirect way, Howayek said.
Lebanon’s produce, on the other hand, is subject to stringent standards, which often lead to the denial of shipments by Arab states, he added.
“The Agriculture Ministry, which is responsible for monitoring imported produce quality, is completely ignoring regulations and letting in huge amounts of low-quality and badly packaged produce.”
Tomatoes, strawberries, cucumbers and several leafy vegetables are the most affected by the increasing flow of Syrian produce, Howayek said.
An agricultural exporter  with knowledge on the matter said farmers on the Syrian coast, where security has been relatively stable in spite of the war raging across Syria, are exporting large quantities of produce to Lebanon.
This follows sharp deterioration in local demand and export markets in Europe, as well as the GCC becoming completely inaccessible, he said.
“For the cash-strapped farmers and traders, any amount of foreign currency is needed. Any money they can make in the Lebanese market is welcome. That’s why you see very low prices,” said the source, who asked not to be identified.
Howayek echoed these views, adding that production costs in Syria were incomparable with Lebanon’s.
“To produce 1 kilogram of strawberries in Lebanon farmers spend between LL1,500 and LL2,000, while today the market price is barely reaching that,” he said, noting that imported Syrian strawberries were selling for as low as LL800 on the wholesale market.
While Syrian produce seems to be flowing into Lebanon relatively freely, Howayek said Syria was still barring Lebanese trucks, headed mostly to the GCC states, from accessing the country.
The security conditions on the road connecting Deraa, in Syria, and Amman, in Jordan, have sharply deteriorated over the past few months to the point that the major export route was virtually impassable since March.
Howayek said efforts by Lebanese officials to lift the Syrian ban, put in place in retaliation for attacks on Syrian fuel  trucks, had so far failed to bear fruit.
“In spite of their positive announcements, nothing yet has happened,” he said, adding that trucks were still barred from entering Syria as of Sunday.
Asked whether ferry routes from Lebanon to Jordan were proving commercially viable, Howayek said most exporters were unable to pay the hefty prices that could reach $2,000 per truck.
He said the Lebanese government should purchase truck ferries or subsidize transport fees for exporters.
The Akkar farmers said they would be announcing escalatory measures in a news conference later this week.
“We will follow this issue to the end to protect our agricultural products, which are our only source [of income] for a decent living and to provide education and health care to our families.”