TBY talks to Hussein Hassan, Minister of Agriculture, on migration, attracting FDI, and improving food safety.

HE Hussein Hassan
Hussein Hassan first ran for office in Lebanon’s 1996 general election and was elected MP of Bekaa’s Baalbek constituency. He was re-elected in the 2000, 2005, and 2009 polls. From 2000 to 2005 he led the parliamentary commission on Agriculture and Tourism. He was named Minister of Agriculture in November 2009 in Saad Hariri’s national unity government. He is part of the “Loyalty to the Resistance”, an opposition parliamentary bloc.

As Minister of Agriculture, what has been your vision to develop the sector?

I have developed a strategy for the advancement of the agriculture sector with a program of action for 2010 to 2014. We are seeking to provide an appropriate institutional framework focusing on quality growth, while considering development issues that target human rights and living conditions.

You have mentioned a trend of internal migration from rural areas to cities. What led to such a significant amount of the population migrating to Beirut?

More than half the population of Lebanon lives in the Greater Beirut area. That means we have 50% of the population concentrated in 30% of the country's territory. The reason for this is the general framework of the economy, which in the past didn't provide a positive environment for the agriculture sector, with priority given to other sectors. This reduced the investment level in agriculture, and thus reduced the opportunities for development and competitiveness. The neglect of the agriculture sector in Lebanon resulted in poverty in rural areas and internal migration, which led to the emergence of poverty around cities and outward migration. What also led to a further influx of people in Beirut was the underdevelopment of the road system. Now we are completing an up-to-date road system to support areas outside of Beirut.

What other development programs is the Ministry of Agriculture applying to reverse urban drift?

Our investment plan includes measures to balance development between the regions, reduce poverty and malnutrition in rural areas, and strengthen the role of women and youth in rural development. As it is, 25% of the population relies on agriculture, and the population that works in the sector is of lower education. We are trying to encourage the youth to stay in rural areas so they can contribute to the development and preservation of the sector. This is not just a local focus, but an international focus.

“Our efforts are based on lowering the cost of production."

How is the Ministry working to attract FDI?

Our efforts are based on lowering the cost of production. Lebanon is a small country; therefore, one of the main costs imposed on companies is high land values. Secondly, energy costs in Lebanon are high. Thirdly, the cost of human resources is high. We are not trying to compare ourselves to countries in Europe, what we look at are the costs in the sector compared with our neighbors. If we experience a higher cost of production than Syria, Egypt, or Iraq then we will not be competitive in the marketplace. The way we can follow European countries is to subsidize agriculture. Additionally, the exclusion of customs costs can provide the needed support.

The Ministry is looking to improve the contribution of agriculture to GDP. What are the main goals of the Ministry in accomplishing this?

We are looking to achieve an increase in the agriculture sector from 5% to 8% of GDP. This increase will also be in line with the creation of 10,000-15,000 new jobs. Furthermore, we aim to decrease the trade imbalance of agricultural products that currently is at a ratio of 6:1 from imports to exports, where only 15% of the production in Lebanon is used for domestic consumption.