Ebola Stokes Liberian Food Shortage as Farmers Eat Seeds

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The Ebola crisis is exacerbating food shortages in Liberia as a lack of labor hinders production and hungry rice farmers eat the seeds they’d normally hold back for planting next season.

Ebola will leave a lasting impact of malnutrition even as the number of new cases of the deadly disease is beginning to slow, Charles McClain, a deputy minister at the country’s Agriculture Ministry, said yesterday in an interview at an international conference on nutrition at the United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organization in Rome. About a third of Liberia’s 4 million people were already undernourished before the Ebola outbreak, and labor shortages stemming from the disease are affecting production, he said.

“It has affected nutrition to a great deal,” McClain said. “We sent teams out to the country to assess what the situation is, and we found out that farmers are eating their seed rice.”

Rice is a staple crop in Liberia, which produced 238,000 metric tons last year, 18 percent less than average, the FAO said in February. The country already imported about 75 percent of its grain needs.

Rice Yields

Yields for upland rice may drop by 10 percent to 25 percent in Liberia because of labor shortages, according to a report released by the development organization Mercy Corps on Nov. 4. Government warnings against congregating in large groups mean fewer farmers are working in their traditional “kuu” system, a cooperative method in which they band together to harvest, plant and do other work in each other’s fields, according to the report.

Farmers in Liberia normally harvest rice from September through December and plant new crops from April to July, according to the FAO.

Half of the West African country’s workforce is inactive because of Ebola, with the virus affecting all parts of the economy, the World Bank said yesterday. Ebola has killed 2,964 people in Liberia, according to the Health Ministry.

The country recently eased a curfew put in place to help stem the disease, McClain said. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said last week that she wouldn’t extend a state of emergency because of progress made against the virus. Patient numbers are declining at most treatment centers, even as “hotspots” of disease remain, according to a Nov. 18 statement from the president’s office.

Ebola Deaths

More than 5,400 people have died from the current outbreak, according to the World Health Organization, with Guinea and Sierra Leone the hardest hit countries along with Liberia. The virus may cost West African economies as much as $32 billion through next year, the World Bank said in October.

In Guinea, Ebola has affected agricultural production growth as well as the functioning of markets, Jacqueline Sultan, the country’s agriculture minister, said today in Rome, according to the prepared text of her speech. Production shortfalls in some parts of the country may be compensated by surpluses in other areas, she said.

The world has 805 million chronically undernourished people, 100 million less than in the previous decade, the UN said in September. Ministers and officials from more than 170 countries are meeting this week at the Second International Conference on Nutrition in Rome to discuss topics including hunger, micronutrient deficiencies and obesity.

Ebola threatens to cause a “backward slide” on the progress the world has made toward reducing hunger and malnutrition, said Asma Lateef, director of the Bread for the World Institute, a Washington-based lobby group’s policy analysis arm.

“Some of the countries that are the most affected by Ebola are also experiencing the highest burdens of under-nutrition,” Lateef said in an interview yesterday in Rome. “What we’re seeing in Ebola-affected countries is that the food systems are breaking down. As people get sick they’re unable to work in the fields and access food from the market.”

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