Ebola is now threatening West Africa’s food supply

Citizens in quarantined areas are largely dependent on food rations.
Citizens in quarantined areas are largely dependent on food rations.
Image: Reuters (Stringer)
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The Ebola outbreak has jeopardized upcoming harvests and made food prices skyrocket in the three West African countries hit hardest by the virus, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Border crossing closures and reduced trade through seaports have squeezed supplies in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, all of which are net importers of grain.

The region’s most productive agricultural areas are where Ebola cases reportedly are highest. In an interview on the FAO’s website, FAO economist Jonathan Pound said the establishment of quarantine zones and restrictions on travel have kept many traders from collecting goods from farmers and taking them back to urban centers—while farmers have been unable to deliver their goods to smaller markets.

The combination of slower trade plus bouts of panic buying has sent prices up, and now ”people either cannot afford to buy food or it is not accessible anymore,” another FAO official, Vincent Martin, told Reuters.

Martin is the head of FAO’s Resilience Hub in Dakar, which is involved in coordinating the agency’s response to the crisis. ”Even prior to the Ebola outbreak,” he said in a press release, “households in some of the affected areas were spending up to 80 percent of their incomes on food.”

Then there’s the ban on bushmeat—another necessary measure to stop the spread of Ebola, but one that’s also making it harder for families to feed themselves.

The local rice and maize harvests are supposed to begin in a few weeks. Before the outbreak, which has killed at least 1,900 people since March, production forecasts for these crops were quite positive. But security measures in place to prevent the spread of Ebola are expected to cause labor shortages on farms, reducing the harvests substantially. Production of cash crops including palm oil, cocoa, and rubber also is expected to take a hit.

A surge in prices for both imported and domestic food supplies “may have social repercussions that could lead to subsequent impact on the disease containment,” Martin said.

FAO is working with government agencies on their first priority right now, which is containing the virus. However, Pound said the organization is currently conducting rapid assessments to figure out how to support agriculture and shore up food supplies in affected countries. Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme is trying to scale up its emergency deliveries of food to the region, aiming to feed 1.3 million people with 65,000 tonnes of supplies.