The current Ebola outbreak crisis started in eastern Guinea, through a “chance contact” by a toddler with an infected fruit bat. According to the World Health Organization, fruit bats are natural reservoirs for the virus, and fruit bats are regularly eaten in rural West Africa. Even though direct transmission to people is very rare, many people in very poor countries hunt the bats for food. People interact with these sick and dying animals and come into direct contact with blood, secretions, organs, or other bodily fluids of the infected animals. In Uganda, the frequency of Ebola virus disease (EVD) outbreaks are increasing, with many of the patients unable to account for their source of infection. Within a short period of time the Ebolavirus has swept through three West African countries and has taken thousands of lives, but now it is also threatening those countries’ economies and global food safety. Therefore, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has launched a new program to urgently assist 90,000 vulnerable households in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone whose food supplies and livelihoods are jeopardized by the disruptive effect of the Ebola epidemic. Agriculture leaders from Liberia and Sierra Leone met earlier this month at the World Food Prize international symposium in Des Moines where they discussed the deadly disease’s impact on their countries. Given annually, the World Food Prize honors individuals who work to improve the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world and explore food security issues and barriers to feeding the growing population.

It was only in early October that five international airports started to apply stricter screenings of West African passengers. As world leaders are working to contain the disease’s spread, The World Bank announced that the economic toll from the Ebola epidemic could increase to $32.6 billion by the end of 2015. The World Bank study shows that no matter what happens in coming months, Ebola already  is having a huge economic impact. Right now, it is killing workers and causing higher fiscal deficits and rising prices, lowering real household incomes, and creating greater poverty. Over time, the disease will have indirect consequences as people’s behavior change. People will become afraid to meet or even show up for work, causing places of employment to close, disrupting transportation and trade, motivating governments to close land borders, and rattling tourism. However, if the disease is rapidly contained, the economic impact could roughly amount to $2 billion. In addition, fear of the disease being transmitted is hampering trade as businesses have closed and labor shortages threaten the impending harvest, food and cash crop production in affected areas. The farmers who haven’t already abandoned fields in quaran­tined areas may struggle to harvest their crops and eventually get them to local and regional markets. In an attempt to help minimize damages, U.S agencies have invested over $400 million in efforts to fight Ebola, including airlifting critical relief and medical supplies, training health care workers, and building Ebola treatment centers. The U.S Department of Defense is now expected to provide an estimated $1 billion in added assistance.

The food security and nutrition of countless people are at risk as control measures and other restrictions have slowed down the movement of goods and services, including food items. This has resulted in panic buying, food shortages and rising food prices. Global food security is essential and the lack of adequate food could be a destabilizing factor in a country’s national security. Food and nutrition insecurity in failing countries can potentially provide opportunities for insurgent groups to capitalize on poor conditions, exploit international food aid, and slander governments for their inability to address basic needs.

Three million deaths a year and one-quarter of all deaths from infection are agriculture-associated. Zoonotic and food-borne diseases kill 2.2 million people and sicken 2.4 billion people annually. Uganda, for example, has been strongly affected by the high infectious rate of the Ebola virus. Agriculture and livestock are the backbone of Uganda’s economy, providing livelihoods to 80% of its citizens. In the past few years, Uganda has been witnessing a rise in demand for pork and this has led to increased pig production in the country. Pigs are preferred to other livestock species due to their relatively rapid growth rate, large litter sizes, and potential to provide financial returns over a short period. Interestingly, recent epidemiological work from The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and CGIAR research program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Heath has revealed swine, in addition to the fruit fly, as a host for Ebolavirus. The intensification of pig production in Uganda along with poor pig husbandry practices increases pig-human contact, a risk for direct transmission of Ebolavirus. The problem here lies with sharing the same habitats as the main vector; these pigs scavenge for food where they come in contact with dropped fruit, excrement, saliva, urine, and feces from fruit bats that are infected. In order to strengthen the pig value chain in Uganda, further research is critical to determine what role pigs play in Ebolavirus transmission and the risk factors for infection in pigs and from pigs to humans. This will help identify interventions that would minimize food instability, public health consequences, mass public panic, and negative economic impact from trade and travel restrictions associated with the Ebola virus outbreak.

Another example of how the Ebolavirus presents a potential threat to global food safety is the impact on the production and distribution of cocoa beans used in making chocolate. More than 70% of the world’s cocoa beans come from more than 2 million rural farmers in West African nations including Ivory Coast, has shut down its borders with Liberia and Guinea, putting a major crimp on the workforce needed to pick the beans that end up in chocolate bars and other treats just as the harvest season begins. Ivory Coast and Ghana are by far the two largest producers of cocoa, together they cultivate more than half of the world´s cocoa. These two are followed by other cocoa-producing countries like Nigeria, and Cameroon. A multi-sectoral approach is required to contain the outbreak and stabilize affected areas while preventing a long-term food security crisis. The fear that the virus could disrupt the supply of cocoa beans has forced the world`s biggest chocolate makers such as Nestle, Mars and Hershey, among 19 other chocolate giants, into action by raising up to $600,000 in the fight against Ebola. Furthermore, they`re making contingency plans in case the virus spreads into the cocoa belt. The current market is unstable as prices on cocoa jumped from their normal trading range of $2,000 to $2,700 per ton, to as high as $3,400 in September over concerns regarding the spread of Ebola to Côte D’Ivoire. Since then, prices have altered down to $3,030 and then back to $3,155 in the past couple of weeks.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; Data as of Oct.8, 2014; graphic by Bill Kuchman – Politico

The recent outbreak of Ebola has upended food-producing regions in West Africa. Hundreds of farmers are among the thousands who have died; food prices have risen dramatically; families are forced to reduce to one meal per day; and government-imposed quarantines and restrictions on movements have caused an unsettling disrupted market that has led to food scarcity. Countries that were already facing food security challenges prior to the emergence of Ebola, such as Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone the situation, has become even more urgent. In the case of Ebola, strategic food reserves and strong social safety nets could help those most affected by the epidemic. Food prices rise in the face of epidemics causing additional threat to food and nutrition security, particularly in vulnerable communities. The resulting food and economic crises make it more difficult and more important to design a sustainable integrated response to disease and hunger.