Groups rush to avoid food crisis in Ebola-stricken areas

August 27

With food stocks running low in Ebola-stricken Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, international organizations are preparing for a looming food crisis amid concerns that imports are being affected and farmers in areas quarantined will not be able to harvest and deliver their crops.

“A health crisis will become a food crisis,” said Fabienne Pompey, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program. The U.N. agency is increasing its food assistance with the goal of reaching 1 million people in restricted areas, including rations for households and cooked meals for patients in isolation.

Both Sierra Leone and Liberia have enforced a state of emergency, with travel in and out of the most affected areas restricted. Liberia has closed all borders except for a few critical entry points.

In quarantined areas, food shortages, not Ebola, are the main concern, said Jean-Alexandre Scaglia, representative of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Liberia. “People are saying: ‘We’re not afraid of dying from Ebola, we’re starving.’ ”

Riots broke out last week in West Point, a coastal shantytown of 70,000 people in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, as the government enforced a quarantine. Scaglia said that such intervention measures ultimately fail if people are not assured access to food.

A crew is headed from Fort Worth to Liberia to deliver medical supplies for fighting the Ebola outbreak there. The plane will be carrying protective gear and other supplies in critical demand.

A food crisis develops quickly, Scaglia said. “You don’t realize until one morning you wake up, you go to the shop, and no one has anything to sell you.”

Abdullah Karama, a father of six in West Point, said he is desperate to leave the barricaded neighborhood to get food for his family.

“We cannot go out to buy any food, and the food in West Point is finishing,” he said in a telephone interview Monday, the day the government began emergency distribution of rice block by block, he said, with one six-kilogram bag of rice to every five residents. “We don’t know when the next bag of rice will come,” he added.

Every year during what is called the lean season, from June until September, locally produced food stocks dwindle, food prices rise and dependence on imports of basic staples increases. But now, there are concerns that imports during this period will be hampered by border closures and suspension of shipments.

Scaglia criticized recent decisions by the international community to isolate affected countries, decisions that defy recommendations by the World Health Organization against any restrictions on travel and trade. “We estimate the food stock in [Liberia] is something between one month and two months, at its best no more than that,” he said, adding that this may not be enough to reach the November-December harvest period.

These concerns are compounded by uncertainty about whether farming communities will have the incentive or manpower to harvest and worries that the produce, even if harvested, will not be transported or sold, with quarantines in effect.

In the Ebola-hit district of Kailahun in Sierra Leone, 78 percent of the population mainly buys its food from the local markets, but with the epidemic, these markets have shut down.

Head of medical aid group Doctors Without Borders calls for more leadership from the World Health Organization to bring the Ebola epidemic in West Africa under control. (Reuters)

Government bans on public gatherings are keeping farmers from assembling to tend fields, the Food and Agriculture Organization reported, and many of those who died in Kailahun were between the ages of 15 and 45, threatening a shortage in farm labor.

Cross-border trade among the three Ebola-stricken countries is crucial to the flow of basic commodities such as rice, cassava and palm oil. About 30 percent of rice consumed in Sierra Leone and 80 percent of meat consumed in Liberia comes across the border from Guinea. Restrictions on travel between these countries is hampering such trade.

Lofa County, epicenter of the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, is one of the country’s breadbaskets. This year, the largest purchase of rice by a local processor in the nation’s history was made from 550 Lofa farmers. Expectations were high in Liberia for a large harvest this year.

But the Ebola crisis may lead farmers to abandon their fields and the harvest.

“Many of the counties that traditionally produce a lot of surplus, especially surplus to feed the capital, are the main Ebola hot spots,” said Scaglia.

International organizations are working on solutions to support farmers. Cassava rots within a week unless processed into flour, which lasts for months. One possibility is providing trucks to bring cassava to towns not under quarantine or providing simple processing machines to the villages under restrictions, said Scaglia.

Food provided to the Liberian government by the World Food Program for distribution in West Point included rice produced in Liberia, said Pompey, adding that support for local farmers to continue producing must be a priority.

“There is every possibility that . . . shipments of food could be brought into the country in coming weeks, which could severely distort the market in the opposite direction and drown out local production,” said Fabio Lavelanet, chief executive of Fabrar Liberia, the local rice production company that made the historic rice purchase in May.

But the crisis could be a major opportunity for local producers to supply emergency food distributions and meet increasing demand, added Lavelanet. “All we can do is hope that we will be allowed to take advantage of what was projected to be the largest harvest season in Liberia’s history,” he said.

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