Voice of America (Washington, DC)

26 August 2014

West Africa: Ebola Threatens Food Security

The Ebola epidemic is raising serious concerns about food security in Liberia -- the country hardest hit by the outbreak in West Africa. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization will conduct rapid assessments of the situation.

Food security in Liberia is being threatened on a number of fronts mostly due to fear of infection. For example, food imported by ships and planes may not arrive as often. And Liberian farmers, who often work in groups to boost production, are not doing so.

Joseph Boiwu, U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's Assistant Country Representative for Program in Liberia, "This is a serious situation that we all need to be very concerned about. Even prices are increasing. If ships are not coming into this country - we depend mostly on imports - what about food? Those are serious concerns that we need to take on board and think about Liberia."

Ebola has spread in the farming regions.

"As we speak, you will notice the total number of cases in this country has reached up to 1,378. And Lofa County is one of the breadbasket counties of this country. And the cases they have are up to 542. So, all the counties, including Nimba, are affected," he said.

The World Health Organization regularly issues updated figures on the Ebola outbreak. So, the numbers mentioned by Boiwu at the time of the interview may rise.

Efforts are underway to persuade Liberian farmers to return to working in groups. But the FAO's Boiwu said that's easier said than done.

"One of the methods that they have given that will help people to stay away from Ebola is to avoid being in groups. So farmers, they are not in groups again. We have been trying to organized farmer-based organizations, where you have farmers working in groups. And individual farming is very small. They can't produce sufficient [food] as individuals, so we encourage them to work in groups. But group farming now is just not possible due to this Ebola. So they are all afraid."

What's more, movement has been restricted in some Liberian counties.

The FAO has been monitoring food prices in Monrovia. For example, the price of the staple cassava is reported to have increased by 150-percent. Pepper is up 133-percent. The U.N. agency's rapid assessments will determine what the food price hikes are outside of the capital.

The agency said that there's "urgent need for short-cycled vegetable production... as well as urgent support for fishermen... to enable them to increase their catch."

Health officials believe the Ebola virus was transmitted from animals - bats and monkeys, for example - to humans. The FAO will conduct a risk assessment of animal/human contact and develop safeguards. The assessment is expected to lead to an early warning surveillance system that could quickly detect the presence of infected wildlife - and trigger effective public health measures.

Boiwu said, "Most of the people like hunters, like farmers, they depend on meat - their source of protein. So we'll also conduct an analysis of their value chain situation of bushmeat. When we have this information we think it's going to help with Ebola from our perspective."

Rapid assessments of food security are also scheduled to get underway in Guinea and Sierra Leone.

The FAO's sister agency, the World Food Program, reported it's "scaling-up" its operations, not only in Liberia, but neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea. The WFP says the goal is to reach one-million people in Ebola affected areas with food deliveries.

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