The number of people threatened by food insecurity in the Ebola-affected region in West Africa could jump from 500,000 to 1 million by March 2015, Devex has learned.
The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization raised the alarm during a meeting in Brussels on Thursday, where the general sentiment was that beyond the immediate health crisis, a new danger is looming.
“We are very worried about the consequences the Ebola crisis is having on food security and the whole agricultural sector,” Dominique Bourgeon, director of FAO’s emergency and rehabilitation division, told Devex in Brussels, where he took part in a meeting of the Network for Prevention of Food Crises with the European Commission.
After looking into the effects of Ebola on food security in West Africa, FAO and the World Food Program found that restrictions are affecting the access to food, distorting market prices and increasing shortages.
Nevertheless, Bourgeon said, “Globally, the impact of the epidemic on food production in these countries was not so big, as Ebola hit the region just after the sowing season. Rice production has gone down by 4 percent in Guinea, 8 percent in Sierra Leone and 12 percent in Liberia.”
However, the joint FAO-WFP study has displayed big disparities within the region. In Liberia’s Lofa district, for example, production is down by 20 percent. In the hardest hit parts of Sierra Leone, meanwhile, there’s a 17 percent fall.
“This is threatening access to food,” Bourgeon warned.
Ebola is also hampering trade and shipments of produce within and between countries, as borders are being closed in an attempt to block the spread of the disease.
“This is affecting the transport and sale of agricultural products from rural areas to places of consumption,” the FAO official explained. “As a consequence, agricultural prices — and therefore incomes for farmers — are dropping in production areas because they are stuck with their products, while food is becoming scarce and expensive in the cities.”
Farmers have been losing income due to the crisis, not only because of falling prices, but also because many were afraid to go the fields in fear that they would contract Ebola. In addition, they are missing out on earnings from cash crops such as cocoa and rubber, and export crops including pineapples and potatoes.
“Because of these losses, small farmers have to use their savings for expenses for food, health and education, instead of buying grains or fertilizer,” Bourgeon said. “We are afraid that the next agricultural season will see a significant drop in cultivation.”
FAO will have to help operationalize a shift in the struggle against Ebola. For the moment, most attention is devoted to containing the spread of the disease. Money is available, but the bottleneck is still getting qualified international medical staff out in the field, especially in remote rural areas.
Meanwhile, the European Union is starting to look forward to addressing the mid- and long-term problems caused by the epidemic. These should be tackled at an international conference that EU Ebola “czar” and humanitarian aid chief Christos Stylianides is planning for early 2015. That would allow FAO to tap into the 1.1 billion euros ($1.35 billion) of funding that the EU and its 28 member states have mobilized to fight Ebola.
FAO is seeking support for a $42 million plan to improve food security in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
“We are working with both local and international NGOs to prepare measures against food insecurity. We’re considering providing food assistance with WFP,” Bourgeon noted. “Another instrument is to organize conditional cash transfer for farmers to buy sowing seed, in exchange for helping with public works and infrastructure.”
Cash aid could also go to women’s groups on the Liberian markets, who have lost nearly all their capital in the crisis.
“They could get support if they help spread public information messages on measures to prevent the spread of Ebola,” the FAO official added.
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