The moment she saw it for the first time under the pale moonlight in 1995, Jacqueline Jraissaty knew it was exactly the piece of land – located near Saida in the South just before a village named Joun – on which she wanted to start her organic farm. Although it took her five years to nurture the land with endless horse manure to finally make it arable, she is now the owner and cultivator of a picturesque farm that hosts hundreds of different fruits and vegetables, along with pet turtles, dogs, cats and hens. She has 10 regular customers who, each week, are delivered a basket full of fresh fruit and vegetables. What they get depends on what is ripe and available. Jraissaty emphasizes the ill-effects of commercial farming, which harms both land and human health. “I think the earth should go organic,” says Jraissaty.
Jraissaty is one of several passionate organic farmers in Lebanon who want people to know more about the benefits of going organic. These farmers also have considerable choice over where to sell their produce. Just in Beirut, a range of organic shops, including Healthy Basket in Hamra, Healthy Corner in Ghobeiri, and Beit al-Soha – the oldest organic shop in Lebanon of over 12 years – across Hotel Dieu, offer good business to organic farmers. On the other hand, Lebanon’s very first farmers’ market, Souk al-Tayyeb, which takes place every Saturday morning near downtown Beirut, and Souk al-Ard, which takes place every Tuesday morning in Hamra, draw large organic-buying or simply curious crowds.
Thanks to these efforts, organic foods have been gaining ground in Lebanon over the past few years. And last week in Achrafieh, the first organic grocery store, called A New Earth, had its official opening.
According to one of the store’s owners, Sabine Kassouf, “We’re trying to have everything you can find in a grocery store.” This is a new idea, says Kassouf, considering the fact that most of the other organic shops focus mainly on organic fruits and vegetables, while outdoor markets that might offer a wider variety usually occur only once a week. The store is on its way to being fully stocked with everything and anything organic, ranging from fresh produce, mouneh, or local Lebanese preserves, to organic pasta, baby food, ketchup and beauty products.
A New Earth store’s opening was a tasting session, as well as an opportunity for customers to meet the farmers, producers and cooks of the organic foods in the store. Near the entrance, Rita Khoury gave out cups of delicious organic wine from Adyar, which is run exclusively by monks in Batroun, Metn, and the Chouf of the Maronite order. A drink and a step or two further on, there were tables of sample organic mouneh prepared from Waditein in the Bekaa valley, as well as of samples of organic vegetarian kibbeh, rice puddings, and kaiten – a kind of Japanese fruit jello – freshly prepared by Guna biorestaurant.
On the next table below some steps, Maysoon Nasreddine from the Chouf served small vegetarian shawerma sandwiches made of saytan, or vegetarian “meat” based on soy beans. Her neighbor, Fadi Daou, from the Adonis Valley, was serving zesty organic tomatoes and sundried tomatoes. He said that farming and eating organic is “full of pleasure, first. Then it protects the environment. And third, you produce tasty food, which is healthier to human beings and the earth.”
At the table across from Nasreddine and Daou, Wael Sabbagh offered hempseed cookies. Hemp, as Sabbagh puts it, is the “misunderstood cousin of hashish,” which is not only believed to be the most nutritious single food source on the planet, but can be used to make oil, cookies, milk, paper and construction material, among others.
While there is no doubt that organic farming is altogether a good thing, the original concept came from the aim of preserving the earth, rather than human health, according to Rami Zurayk, professor of agriculture at the American University of Beirut, who teaches organic farming and also has a blog called “Land and People.” For this reason, it is still not proven for sure that organic is necessarily better than eating local, conventionally farmed food. For instance, a recent article published by the Lancet, discussed a British study which questioned the popular belief that organic food is necessarily more nutritious than regularly farmed food.
A food stamped “organic,” in addition, does not guarantee fewer food miles, which measure how fresh and carbon-free a food is. Zurayk gave the example of organic strawberries sold in London, which are, in fact, shipped from Egypt.
Lastly, there is the class issue. Getting organic certification can be limited to those who have the means. On the other hand, those who can buy organic food come from certain economic backgrounds.
But it still holds true that going organic means you consume less pesticide and other harmful chemicals, while contributing to the preservation of our precious environment. Also, the high cost of organic foods, argues Daou, is because non-organic farmers – one of the most exploited people in the world – charge too little for their efforts, rather than because organic farmers charge too much.
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