Freetown - The United Nations warned Tuesday of a looming food crisis in eastern Sierra Leone, under lockdown since the Ebola-hit west African nation announced a state of emergency.
The UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) said many of the deaths in Kailahun district, at the epicentre of the outbreak, had been among those aged 15 to 45, leading to an acute shortage in farm labour.
An FAO report written at the end of a 10-day study of the district concluded that a government ban on fairs and other public gatherings had "prevented farmers assembling in large numbers to undertake large scale farming".
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"Hikes in prices of consumer goods have made people feed on cassava, bush yam, banana and maize, with many farmers mortgaging their plantations to make ends meet," the report said.
The report said there was a shortage of safe crop seeds in Kailahun, where the main export is coffee and cocoa, resulting from the disinfection of households where Ebola deaths had occurred.
Impoverished Sierra Leone has been hit hard by the outbreak sweeping across west Africa, with 910 cases of the deadly haemorrhagic fever and 392 deaths, almost all in the east.
President Ernest Bai Koroma appealed to the international community two weeks ago for help to fill an $18 million (13 million euro) shortfall in funding to battle the Ebola epidemic.
The president announced a raft of measures as part of a state of emergency in July, including quarantining Ebola-hit eastern districts and cancelling foreign trips by ministers.
The move came in response to a spike in cases of infection by the virus, which has killed more than 1,400 people in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria since the start of the year.
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"Farmers have not been able to harvest their crops planted since May because of the Ebola outbreak," an agriculture ministry spokesman told AFP.
"The outbreak has hit the farming community the hardest."
Jesse Olu John, president of the National Federation of Sierra Leone Farmers, told AFP pests had destroyed crops in Kailahun as labourers had been unable to tend their fields.
"Most of the farmers have lost wives, children or loved ones. The secretary-general of the federation, Idrissa Magbity, has also died," he said.