New Delhi: Even as the death toll from the Ebola virus disease rises, it is triggering a food crisis in West Africa that can persist for decades. Prices of staple foods such as rice and cassava have gone up sharply in the affected areas, as crops are abandoned and labour shortages rise.

In an email interview, Shenggen Fan, director of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a global think tank working on food security, says the food crisis is unlikely to spill over to other regions so long as the disease is not transmitted. However, the threat of cross-boundary transmission is ratcheting up prices of commercial crops like cocoa, impacting the chocolate industry. Edited excerpts:

How has Ebola impacted food security in West Africa?

Ebola is triggering a food crisis in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia through a series of interrelated factors, including farmer deaths, labour shortages, rising transportation costs, and rising food prices. Now, schools in Sierra Leone have closed, shutting down critical feeding programmes for children. And restrictions on the consumption of bush meat, the suspected source of Ebola, have eliminated a traditional source of protein and nutrition from local diets. Within these countries, where undernourishment has long been a problem, the food crisis may persist for decades.

Which other regions are at risk of a worsening food situation due to Ebola?

Because Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia are all net food importing countries, the Ebola-triggered food crisis is unlikely to reach out to other countries in the region or beyond. Global food prices tend to have transmission effects on regional or national food prices, but for small markets (on a global scale) such as these three countries, the transmission effect of food prices is unlikely to pass beyond their own boundaries—so long as the disease itself is not transmitted.

Globally, food prices have been at their lowest since August 2010 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) food price index but prices have reportedly gone up by 24% in Ebola-hit nations. Why?

The prices of staple foods are rising in the affected areas as farms are abandoned and as labour shortages grow. In Kailahun agricultural district in Sierra Leone, 40% of farmers have abandoned their farms for safer zones and 90% of plots there are uncultivated, according to FAO. Quarantined zones and restrictions on movements have led to labour shortages during the harvest season for staple and cash crops. These factors lead to smaller harvests, which means less available food and higher prices.

Cocoa prices have shot up globally anticipating a supply crunch from nations bordering those under the grip of Ebola. Should the chocolate industry be worried?

Ebola has also hit cocoa sectors in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. For example, Guinea’s cocoa production is estimated to have fallen by one-third within the past year. However, while the cocoa sector in all three countries have been severely set back, they only account for a small fraction of global output. It is unlikely that the impact of Ebola on prices will be directly felt in the world market—for cash crops like cocoa or for staples—as transmission effects of food prices are unlikely to pass from the small markets (on a global scale) of these three countries beyond their own boundaries.

However, the threat of cross-boundary disease transmission—particularly into Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana—has ratcheted up cocoa prices and exports. Prices have risen 13% since the start of 2014 due to fears of the virus spreading to these two countries, as well as the threat of further cases in Nigeria (another cocoa-producing country). Prices are likely to rise further despite accelerated exports, particularly from Cote d’Ivoire, in large part due to the Ebola scare as well as growing demand from emerging economies (e.g. China and India).

Your suggestions on improving the food security situation in Ebola-hit nations?

Social safety nets are needed to protect not only those infected with Ebola, but also those whose access to food is severely affected. These safety nets, which could be in the form of cash or in-kind transfers (context-specificity is important here), should be accompanied with nutrition and health interventions. For example, a conditional cash transfer programme linked to health can help improve access to nutritious foods, particularly when prices are high, while promoting health service use. This is important, because investing in the nutrition and health of vulnerable populations could lower the mortality rate of diseases like Ebola, as nutritional status and infection are intricately linked. In the post-Ebola era, combined social protection and agricultural support interventions will be crucial to build resilience to future livelihood shocks.

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