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Winter 2007 Vol. V, No. 2

Cross-Pollination: Spreading the Seed of Advocacy

Emily Dorman

With their scientific knowledge, practical experience, and exposure to advocacy, AREC's graduates can be found in all areas of the agricultural world. Some students continue in academic pursuits, contributing to scientific research through master's and PhD programs. Many join the private sector, in some cases starting their own businesses based on their personal experience of the demands of farm life.

Lebanese farmers confront many risks. As a result of a lack of standards, weak surveillance, and poor education, many farmers use the wrong chemicals in the wrong ways, sometimes exposing crops to internationally banned chemicals, spraying too much, and too soon before harvesting. Not only can this ruin crops for that year, it can also contaminate the soil and groundwater for up to 20 years. Even if a farm manages to produce healthy vegetables and safe animal products, due to the absence of government subsidies, farmers may not be able to find a market or get a fair market price for their produce. These are problems that reach far beyond individual farms; they affect the health and economic stability of the country. Such far-reaching problems demand far-reaching solutions that include changes in education, and in government policy. In the Beqa’a Valley, a pioneering farm is advocating for change.

The Agricultural Research and Education Center (AREC), or the AUB farm, has been teaching, researching, and reaching out to the farming community for over 50 years. In each of these endeavors, AREC’s aim is to advocate and promote the safe and healthy production of food. AREC has 60 hectares of healthy farmland, where produce is grown with as few synthetic chemicals as possible, and ten hectares of organic farmland, where produce is grown entirely without man-made agents. Its many head of cattle, goats, sheep, and chickens are raised without hormones and with sparing use of antibiotics. AREC sets an impressive example for both students and the local community.
For farmers to benefit fully from health and safety standards, education is not enough: they must be officially recognized for their efforts. Through the LibanCert Company, AREC is involved in helping local farmers obtain international certification as organic food producers, bringing officials from Europe to inspect and classify farms. To date, 25-30 farms have earned this status. While this is only a small percentage of Lebanon’s farms, awareness is growing. “The problem is that our impact is selective,” explains AREC Director Mohamad Farran. "Interested parties come to us for our services, but there isn’t much of an incentive since governmental standards aren’t enforced.”

With 50 years of experience, the farm’s administration and faculty know where to focus their efforts and are realistic about the amount of change that is feasible. Associate Professor Mustapha Haider, a vehement opponent of chemical farming, admits “my farm in the north used to be all organic, but to do this successfully, you have to be in your fields every day, all day. It’s a big time commitment and it became too much for me.” A more realistic goal is being pursued through AREC’s biggest outreach initiative, the Sustainable Forage Development Program. A majority of the forage consumed by Lebanese livestock is grown outside Lebanon, creating an expensive dependency. One of the goals of the Forage Program is to encourage farmers to devote a small area of land for growing forage, increasing their self-sufficiency. Faculty and AUB students follow up on the progress and help to address problems with visits to the farms during the summer, offering both knowledge and labor. Five hundred farmers have been trained through this program, while another 1,000 have been trained through similar programs, along with government employees and professionals from the private sector.

AUB faculty are pursuing initiatives to address the governmental side of this issue as well. Chair of the Department of Environmental Health, May Jurdi, and Professor Raja Tannous have been part of an effort to draft the Lebanese Food Safety Law that stipulates standards for safe harvesting, processing, packaging, and labeling of food. Jurdi is also active in an awareness campaign in an effort to inform consumers about what to demand in food labeling practices and what packaging materials are safest.

“Full-time” takes on a new meaning for students in the Departments of Land and Water

Resources, Animal Sciences, Plant Sciences, and the Landscaping Program, who are required to spend spring and summer semesters taking classes, living, and working at the farm. For two hours every morning, students lend a hand wherever it is needed: at a state-of-the-art poultry house; a creamery for making cheese, lebneh, and ice cream; the only goat and sheep milking parlor in Lebanon; in the fields; and repairing machinery.

Back in class, students are equally involved on the farm. In the spring, for example, students in Associate Professor Mustapha Haider’s Weed Science class had a chance to see the efficacy of eight kinds of weed control methods (such as chemical treatments, wheat straw, and manual weed removal) during a three-month experiment. The resulting growth in the different garden plots vividly demonstrated a number of phenomena covered in class: that some mulches can be effective in preventing only certain kinds of weeds; that some ground covers accidentally introduce new seeds to the area, creating a “volunteer crop.” For their final presentations, students were encouraged to try to understand why, for instance, a certain treatment controls only certain weeds, returning to the chemical and scientific aspects of plant growth.

The same class also required students to invent a private company that would offer a weeding service to benefit local farmers, detailing a budget and a long-term weed control strategy. It is clear that students had taken AREC’s philosophy to heart, as their virtual companies made use of synthetic, cultural, animal, and manual methods of weed control for a realistic choice of crops.
There is another important piece in the agriculture puzzle. As Professor Rami Zurayk of the Department of Land and Water Resources points out, “we must help farmers adhere to safety standards while also helping them to establish good marketing windows for the sale of their produce.” To provide farmers with an honest broker, Zurayk established AUB’s only private firm, Healthy Basket, selling local, organic produce according to Fair Trade principles. AREC also participated in a privately funded research project, “From Seed to Table”, to test the viability of growing and selling new varieties of vegetables in Lebanon. At the end of the project, the results from the production of 30 new kinds of seeds was shared in an international vegetable fair where farmers and private companies from around the Middle East had the chance to see and discuss which vegetables were the most successful. “Everybody wins,” says Nuhad Daghir, former dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences and acting provost. “AREC faculty and students have the experience of planting, growing, and cultivating plants they’ve never worked with and the international community gets a better idea of what to buy next year.”

With their scientific knowledge, practical experience, and exposure to advocacy, AREC’s graduates can be found in all areas of the agricultural world. Some students continue in academic pursuits, contributing to scientific research through master’s and PhD programs. Many join the private sector, in some cases starting their own businesses based on their personal experience of the demands of farm life. Still others become teachers, not uncommonly returning to AREC, sharing their scientific and practical knowledge—as well as their commitment to advocacy—with the next generation. With their roots in the soil, they are helping to provide the multi-disciplinary solution that Lebanon needs.