The global campaign to end world hunger came face to face last week with famine’s powerful new ally: the Ebola virus.
“It could lead to a hunger crisis of epic proportions,” Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) told delegates attending the Borlaug Dialogue, an annual event held in honour of Nobel Peace Prize-winning wheat breeder Norman Borlaug.
“We need a rapid, collective response. We need to deal with the emergency swiftly, but we also need to invest in long-term resilience in the rural areas.”
While much of the North American focus has been on how to prevent the deadly virus from invading the First World, hunger fighters, defence experts and political leaders from West Africa appealed to delegates to see Ebola as a symptom of the very issues they came to discuss — hunger and poverty.
Nwanze told delegates that accomplishing what has been described as the “world’s greatest challenge” of feeding more than nine billion people by 2050 cannot be accomplished without unleashing the productive capacity of the very population that is currently being ravaged — poor farmers living in remote, hard-to-reach areas.
“We must look to the invisible in the forgotten world… it is easy to pretend that they don’t exist, but they do,” he said. “And their problems are our own; anyone who doubts this has only to look at Ebola.”
The virus that has so far killed thousands in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea has driven 40 per cent of farmers from their fields, and is causing the agricultural economy of the West African region to collapse. Entire populations now lack access to food, and farmers who do have crops have no market access.
“It is a disease of the forgotten and the invisible world and it has been a neglected disease,” Nwanze said. “Now it has come to reach capital cities and travelled as far as Europe and the U.S.; the visible world is trembling.”
Starving the future
In a live address from the Republic of Sierra Leone, President Ernest Koroma said Ebola has taken its biggest toll on young adults, most of whom work in agriculture.
“A disease that strikes youth and farmers is a disease that destroys food production,” Koroma said. “It weakens our present and starves our future.”
In its postwar era, Sierra Leone had become one the fastest-growing economies in the world, with projected annual economic growth of more than 11 per cent. Since May, its economic growth outlook has been downgraded to three per cent.
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Florence Chenoweth, the minister of agriculture for Liberia, said her country has also worked hard to rebuild in the aftermath of a civil war that raged from 1980 to 2006 when a democratically elected government came to power.
“We started from scratch,” she said, noting that after the war, farmers returning to the land lacked even the seed they needed to plant a crop.
The country had since become self-sufficient in seed production and was producing enough rice that food procurement programs for the poor were able to source supplies within the country. Liberia had attracted more than $17.6 billion in foreign investment, $17 billion of which was in agriculture.
“All of that agricultural investment has of course left,” Chenoweth said.
“When Ebola is contained, our country will virtually be starting again,” she said.
Instead of nine per cent economic growth, her country’s outlook has been downgraded to 2.1 per cent since the virus first struck in May.
“I think the impact on regional trade is going to be very, very strong,” she said.
Linkages between food security, the Ebola crisis and the escalating conflict in Syria were powerful undercurrents rippling through the conference, which focused on how to close the gap between stagnating global productivity gains and the projected growth in demand for food.
“We need to recognize that the link of food security to conflict and instability is a strong one,” said Daniel Speckhard, president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief and a former high-level U.S. diplomat serving in Iraq.
“We shouldn’t forget that multi-year droughts in Syria betwen 2006 and 2010 are part and parcel of the spark that led to the beginning of the crisis in that country,” he said.
“During that period one-half of the country turned into desert, more than 80 per cent of the livestock had to be eliminated and that resulted in more than 800,000 people without livelihoods who started migrating to the city to survive.”
Speckhard said at a time when there needs to be strong leadership from the international community, the ability of traditional international government organizations to respond is compromised by nationalism and populism.
He joined John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former U.S. undersecretary of defence, in urging citizens to support efforts to de-escalate regional tensions before they erupt into global crises.
Hamre warned North Americans delude themselves by thinking their safety lies in sealing themselves off within “no-fly zones.”
“We are living in an international age when good things and bad things can move at unprecedented speed,” he said. “We’ve known for six months that Ebola was going to become a global problem, we didn’t do anything as a nation. We thought of it as a remote problem, a tragic problem that affected West Africa, not us.”
“That’s not the case anymore. And I think what Norman Borlaug realized 50 years ago was that the human condition has now become seamless. We are not the beneficiaries if we try to hide.”