Ebola outbreak threatens food security in West Africa

3 September 2014

Disruptions in cross-border trade and marketing in the three West African countries most affected by the Ebola outbreak – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea –have sent food prices soaring, threatening food security in the region, according to an alert issued this week by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

The Ebola virus disease is a severe, often fatal illness, with a death rate of up to 90 percent. The current outbreak has seen a case fatality rate of 51 percent, according to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) report released on 29 August. A total of 3052 cases have been recorded in West Africa, causing 1546 deaths.  There is no known cure for the illness.


Cereal harvest at risk due to labour shortage


In an effort to combat the deadly virus, the governments of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have established quarantine zones and imposed restrictions on the movement of people. Although required to stem the spread of disease, these restrictions have had the unwanted side effect of exacerbating food security concerns, according to the special alert released by the FAO.

The main harvest season for key crops – maize, cassava and rice – is due in a “few weeks” time, the UN agency notes, and labour shortages on farmhouses due to movement limitations and migration to other areas will “seriously” impact cereal production.  

Harvest across most of West Africa had initially been forecast at above average levels, due to adequate rainfall during this past year. Food production is now expected to drop drastically, especially since the areas affected by the outbreak in Sierra Leone and Liberia are known to be the most productive.

“With the main harvest now at risk and trade and movements of goods severely restricted, food insecurity is poised to intensify in the weeks and months to come. The situation will have long-lasting impacts on farmers’ livelihoods and rural economies,” said Bukar Tijani, the FAO’s regional representative for Africa.

In addition, cash crops such as oil, cocoa, and rubber are also expected to suffer, which could in turn impact household incomes, “thus reducing purchasing power and inhibiting food access,” the report predicts.

The origin of the virus is still unknown, but some experts argue that human consumption of bush meat has been linked to the transmission of the disease to people.

According to the WHO, fruit bats are considered the likely host of the Ebola virus, based on available evidence. As part of the preventive measures aimed at combating the virus, a ban on bush meat was also introduced which, the FAO says, could deprive some households of a substantial source of nutrition and income.


Food price surge


“Closure of some border crossings, isolation of borders areas where these three countries intersect and reduced trade from seaports are resulting in tighter supplies and a sharp rise in food prices,” the FAO has said.

For example, in Liberia cassava prices increased by up to 150 percent within the first two weeks of August, according to a recent market assessment.

All three countries cited in the report are net cereal importers; therefore, the recent depreciation of their currencies is likely to apply inflationary pressure on domestic food prices, particularly for Sierra Leone and Liberia where exchange rates are more volatile and where food consumption is heavily reliant on imported cereal.

The UN agency has thus called for measures to improve internal trade, calling these “essential” in preventing additional price increases and resolving supply-side constraints.


Falling GDP


The suspension of operations by several multinationals and airlines operating in the region have also caused commercial and transport disruptions which, according to some observers, might hamper the overall region’s economic growth.

Bloomberg has reported that Sime Darby, the world’s leading palm oil producer, has cut back its output in Liberia, while steel manufacturing giant Arcelor Mittal has slowed down its efforts to expand its plant in the same country.

Air travel has also taken a hit, with British Airways among those to halt flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone over public health concerns. Several international shipping lines are also considering whether to avoid West African ports temporarily until the health crisis shows signs of abating.

Some experts say it is premature to evaluate how much Ebola and its consequences will affect sub-Saharan Africa's economic growth – estimated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to hit 5.5 percent this year – while noting that damage seems certain.

However, given the low connectivity of these economies, some experts argue that the crisis is unlikely to threaten the rest of Africa or the global economy as a whole.

Hinting at the narrative about Africa’s strong growth and resilience, a subject of recent attention from the international community, some observers have suggested that this situation could again reinforce the negative stereotypes about the continent, and may in turn deter short-term foreign investment.

ICTSD REPORTING - “Ebola Virus Puts West Africa’s Shipping Trade Under Threat,” THIS DAY LIVE, 24 August 2014; “Ebola Threatens West Africa GDP as Companies Slow Production,” BLOOMBERG, 14 August 2014; “Ebola outbreak puts harvests at risk, sends food prices shooting up,” FAO, 2 September 2014, “Ebola threatens W. Africa food supply amid movement controls,” BLOOMBERG, 2 September 2014. 

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