Chris Barrett, professor of applied economics and management at Cornell University warns that the Ebola outbreak, and especially the quarantines it has prompted, are putting food harvests and markets at great risk and may lead to serious malnutrition-related health problems – which will affect far more people than any infectious disease.
“Ebola will almost surely have health effects on those fortunate enough to avoid infection. The mechanism is reduced nutrient intake due to increased food insecurity.
“There are two big threats to food security that come from the current Ebola outbreak. First, the illness deprives farmers in the region of essential labor that is a fundamental input to production. Planting, weeding and harvesting are labor-intensive tasks that matter enormously, especially for staple cereals in the region, like rice and maize.
“The bigger problem is the second one: disruption of food marketing channels due to quarantines that obstruct the transport of goods. Food inflows into affected areas get cut off as transport corridors get blocked off. That is especially harmful during the current, pre-harvest hungry season when food commonly flows from urban storage facilities to poor rural communities, resulting in reduced food supplies, higher food prices and increased malnutrition. That is where the food security impacts will be felt most acutely.
“If the quarantines continue, that food delivery disruption effect on poor rural populations will be compounded by the adverse post-harvest effect of continued quarantines on the prices farmers receive for their harvest.
“My 2003 study of the impact of animal disease quarantines in Kenya found a 24 percent drop in the prices farmers received when quarantines were in place, accompanied by a sharp increase in price volatility, both of which hurt already-poor farmers. The effects on poor urban residents can be similarly damaging. By disrupting the flow of food post-harvest from rural areas to cities, the transport restrictions implemented to try to control the Ebola outbreak likewise drive up food prices for the urban poor.
“Malnutrition related health problems affect far more people than any infectious disease does. The food insecurity effects of Ebola are less obvious and visible, but potentially just as pernicious and may ultimately affect a larger population than the one contracting the disease.”
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