Organic Migration ... when Palestinians Plant Chemical-Free Food for Americans and Japanese
By: Ruba Anabtawi
Canaan products which are exported to America, Europe and Japan
Exclusive to Environment and Development Horizons:
Shiny bottles filled with Palestinian olive oil are lined up on one of the shelves in an organic store in the United States. All bottles are provided with international organic certification. Palestinian almonds are displayed in cardboard boxes in an organic store in Japan, and during the “organic products’-day in Germany, the Palestinian flag can be seen waving proudly in the wind alongside those of other countries. These chemical-free Palestinian products have crossed the sea in order to reach the stores and tables of other countries who believe in fair trade and organic food.
Canaan Fair Trading Company is the pioneer of organic agricultural export in the West Bank. Since 2004, it has been working with 1700 farmers in the northern and central governorates who produce food on a total area of 66,000 dunums. These farmers generate 1,000 tons of olive oil per year, in addition to almonds, sesame and thyme; thus meeting the needs of more than one million global consumers from 22 countries. Ahmed Abu Farha, the general director of Canaan, said in an interview with Afaq Magzine that “there is a big question to be asked about why these chemical-free food products, that meet the needs of a quarter of the population in the West Bank, are not promoted on the Palestinian market”.
According to Abu Farha, the answer lies in the fact that these products, which are marketed abroad with an international organic certificate, will be sold above the market price. The products are bought from the Palestinian farmers according to the fair trade principles, which aim to support farmers in developing countries by promoting and selling their products at “fair prices” (i.e., prices that are freely negotiated through dialogue between the buyer and the seller) in order to enable them economically.
Organic as a concept and a certificate
Organic agriculture is known as an ecosystem based on biodiversity production systems, biological recycling workshops, effective soil activity, minimum production inputs, and production systems that maintain soil health and beneficial organisms.
These standards have been available in traditional environmental agriculture and was historically inherited before the entry of agro-chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers, into the Palestinian territories in the early sixties. However, the difference comes with the term “organic”, which has been economically linked to a quality certificate from a competent authority that follows a strict inspection.
According to a study by MAS Institute for Economic Policy in 2016 titled "Transformation Potentials into Organic Agriculture in the Palestinian Reality", the world's organic agriculture was codified in the early 1990s when developed countries were concerned with issuing laws, regulations and instructions to regulate the production and marketing of organic products. In Palestine, the first observation station was implemented in 1994 under the supervision of the Agricultural Relief Society in Jericho and Gaza. Although this experience was short-lived, it paved the way for workshops for Palestinian engineers and farmers in Arab countries, such as Egypt, to learn about this type of agriculture.
The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) is the main host for organic agriculture in the world. It aims to promote the adoption of environmental practices based on the principles of organic agriculture for sustainable agriculture.
The “International organic certification” is in line with the essence of food products that are free from chemicals, and it varies in detail according to the directions of countries. According to the Palestinian environmental expert Saad Dagher, organic farming is a modern trend run by international organizations and private sector companies, and has become a global need with the growing desire to receive chemical-free products. Laws and certification systems have therefore been developed for organic products, and in many countries, it is the case that those who inspect and certify organic farms, receive large amounts of money.
Dagher believes that in the case of Palestine, it is not easy to obtain a certified organic product. The reason is the increased price of the product, which relates to the licensing procedure being deemed as a global requirement. This in turn makes the product beyond reach of the poor and those of middle income, leaving it only available for the rich farmers and traders.
Canaan; present internationally and absent locally
Every year in November, Canaan celebrates the "Canaan Jaroua”, which is a traditional celebration of the olive season. This company is known for its large pool of farmers and for adopting European, American and Japanese certificates for organic agricultural export. The company has played a role in promoting organic farming to hundreds of farmers and additionally redirected some of them who returned to the use of chemicals.
Abu Farha says that Canaan mainly export olive oil (700 tons), almonds (200 tons), Freika (30 tons), Maftoul (20 tons), and other quantities of dried tomatoes, basil oil, thyme with sesame, and green wheat. Canaan works with 1700 farmers in 52 villages, spanning from Jenin through Nablus and Salfit to the north of Ramallah, reaching Aroura and Al-Nubani farms. Abu Farha adds, “it is the certificate with its label that gives credibility to the product”. Like a skilled driver without a driver's license; although knowing his skills, the license gives him further confidence to lead the vehicle.
Why is the organic certification expensive?
Abu Farha explains that inspectors from Germany visit the country for two weeks every year and select random samples of products from 50 farmers (out of the 1700) for testing. However, for the olive oil, samples are taken from all the oil presses without exception. After testing and ensuring that the results are good, they confirm their approval for export.
Regarding the absence of Canaans’ products on the local market, Abu Farha pointed out that the Abu Khalaf stores commit to a few samples of olive oil, which they only manage to sell to foreigners because of its high price. For example, a liter of oil which is sold for 30 shekels in Palestine is sold for 100 shekels in America."Apart from the fact that the price is high for the Palestinian consumer who used to buy oil from farmers he knows, he is also indifferent to the importance of organic farming”. Abu Farha concludes by saying that the demand for this type of chemical-free agriculture is still limited in Palestine.
Ministry of Agriculture: We study the formation of an organic farming system
In terms of organic agriculture in official institutions there are, in the Palestinian Ministry of Agriculture, neither positions dedicated to organic agriculture nor are there specific programs tapping into it. Furthermore, there is an absence of a local legal incubator suitable for the production and export of organic agriculture. The Palestinian laws lack basic rules, such as the definition of and conditions for organic agriculture, as well as the enactment of a clear and effective organic agriculture law that complies with European standards. In mid-2016, the Ministry of Agriculture joined the Mediterranean Organic Agriculture Network (MOAN), which includes the ministries of agriculture from 22 Mediterranean countries and that aims to share knowledge in organic agriculture and cooperate in all its aspects.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture, organic crops with an organic certificate comprise a very small percentage (about 0.6%). The Director General of Planning, engineer Hassan Al Ashkar, confirms that agricultural products related to organic production do not currently have a formal system; however they are working on developing organic agricultural specifications in cooperation with the Institution of Standards and Metrology.
Kurzom: Certificates mean the victory of global monopolies
Environmental expert George Kurzom, one of the advocates of environmental organic agriculture, criticizes the reliability of products with very expensive certificates. He believes that monopolistic companies, through this global trend, as certificate providers, target initiatives of small farmers who pursue this kind of chemical-free agriculture in order to produce natural and clean food.
Kurzom adds that if a crop is planted in a way that is ecological and free from chemicals, then we are authorized, as a local Palestinian authority, to give the crop an organic certificate. At the same time, no organic initiative should be questioned for financial purposes of the companies. He points out that there are one billion farmers in the world who have been cultivating ecological or organic agriculture on their lands for thousands of years without certificates. “Don’t their crops deserve trust?” he asks.
Promote organic culture for the benefit of local consumers
Based on a statement made by Kurzom, Saad Dagher, who has been active for years in the promotion of organic farming, believes that the promotion of an organic culture in the absence of any government subsidies needs to focus on:
- The fact that farmer's beliefs in terms of organic transformation are not to seek large profits at the expense of the consumer. Rather, it is about the preservation of nature and the improvement of soil fertility, as well as the desire to produce clean food for people from an ethical point of view
- Promoting production methods that increase the productivity of the land to make it outperform chemical production, while minimizing production costs.
- Creating a direct marketing chain from farms to the consumer, while enhancing consumer confidence in the organic product without the need for certificates and posters (adoption of agro-ecology based on the method of "popularly supported agriculture").
The essence of injustice
According to Dagher, "the essence of injustice" is the transformation of Palestinian land in order to meet the international desire for chemical-free food at the expense of Palestinians who are drowning in chemical food. He says, "The priority is to feed our people with food free from toxins.
As for possible solutions, Dagher says that, globally, smallholdings still produce three quarters of the food and the owners of these holdings rely mainly on natural farming methods. The situation is no different in Palestine. About 80% of the Palestinian holdings are small holdings (less than 10 dunums). These holdings, according to Dagher, can provide enough food without relying on chemical toxins if people are educated in how to produce crops in natural ways (i.e., no licensing and certification procedures needed).
Dagher continue to explain that there are many models in the West Bank that operate in “agro-ecological ways”, which is far superior to “official” organic agriculture in terms of philosophy and practice and which is applied by more than 300 people.
Translated by: Ghadeer Kamal Zaineh
Edited by: Johanna Albinsson