Food crisis looms in wake of Ebola

By Jessica Vaughn

DES MOINES, Iowa — Ebola is killing thousands in West Africa, but the disease is also devastating agriculture, officials from Sierra Leone and Liberia said here Wednesday.

Florence Chenoweth, left, and Sam Sesay, directors of agriculture in Liberia and Sierra Leone, speak Wednesday at a press conference covering Ebola’s impact on agriculture.

“We should begin to prepare ourselves for the aftermath, when the disease is over,” said Joseph Sam Sesay, director of agriculture in Sierra Leone. “If not, we’re actually looking at a major regional food crisis.

“In some regions there’s going to be a lot of food because they cannot sell, and prices are going to plummet. In others, there’s going to be a lack of food in the markets and prices are going to skyrocket.”

About 40 percent of farms in Sierra Leone have been abandoned since the first case of Ebola was diagnosed in May, Sesay said. Companies that have invested money in agriculture have halted production, stunting agricultural revenues.

The infectious disease continues to devastate the national economies of Sierra Leone and Liberia, including their agricultural industries.

“It [Ebola] came in May, which was the peak of the cultivation season,” Sesay said. “So that has negatively impacted agriculture, to an extent that instead of 11.3 percent annual growth rate for 2014 in terms of the economy, we later deflated it to 7 percent and today we are estimating a 3 percent growth rate.”

In a country where the majority of the population is made up of farmers, the economy is highly dependent on agricultural production.

“Two-thirds of the people are farmers and about 55 percent of the people are poor,” Sesay said. “So logically, the majority of the poor people are farmers. With Ebola, that has exacerbated the situation.”

The word Ebola has become synonymous with fear as the disease continues to spread across borders and oceans. It has infected more than 7,000 people in West African countries, and multiple cases have been diagnosed in the United States.

The director of agriculture in Liberia, Florence Chenoweth, said cultural traditions in her country prevented Ebola from being clearly understood. Now, she states the facts that can’t be ignored.

“Ebola is real,” she said. “Ebola kills.”

Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize, called for aid in countries that have been severely affected by the disease, citing the event’s namesake, Norman Borlaug.

“I believe Dr. Borlaug would join me in urging the attention of political leaders all around the world to first and foremost be of assistance to Liberia and Sierra Leone,” Quinn said. “And also to bring the full power of science and research in preparing for what the future may hold in terms of implication for agriculture.”

The countries need foreign aid to help eradicate the disease at the source, Sesay said.

“If agriculture is down, our culture is down,” he said. “The solution is to fight the war where the war is, not wait until it comes here [to the United States].”

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