We must stop eating oil or perish

In 1973, waves of angry protesters blockaded oil refineries and fuel distribution depots in Britain. The fuel crises of that year were having an adverse effect on food distribution. Industry leaders warned their stores would have bare shelves in a matter of days. We have not learned from that experience.

Today’s food supply system is even more dependent on cheap oil than it was then. Practically every phase of producing, processing and distributing food depends on this finite supply of fossil fuel, which is beginning to decline.

Additionally, at a time when massive cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are indicated, agriculture and the food distribution system are lengthening supply chains and boosting emissions to the point where they are significant contributors to global warming. The present food system is unsustainable and is causing environmental damage.

Ironically, the food industry faces serious risk from global warming caused by greenhouse gases, which disrupts normal climatic cycles on which agriculture depends. Global warming also worsens existing environmental threats to farming, many of which are caused by industrial agriculture itself. Water shortages, environmental degradation, soil erosion, salination, pests, disease and desertification are examples. Methods used to overcome these problems further raise the consumption of oil and gas reserves. So the cycle of fossil fuel dependence and environmental breakdown goes on.

Oil production, on a global scale, is about to peak and will decline thereafter. We have a poor grasp of how the wide variances in supply and cost of both oil and natural gas will affect global food supply systems. In the very near future, environmental threats will team with energy scarcity to create significant food shortages and significant price increases, at the least.

We would do well to study what has happened in North Korea, a prime example of what can occur when there is a lack of planning, coupled with unrestricted consumption and an energy crisis.

Before the Korean War, South Korea was a chiefly agrarian society while North Korea was principally an industrialized society. After the war, North Korea began using chemical, fossil fuel fertilizers to enhance their poor soils.

By 1990, it was estimated, North Korea’s estimated energy use was about 12.3 barrels of crude oil per person, more than twice the per capita usage of China at that time and half the usage of Japan.

The north must depend on imports for all its oil and natural gas. In 1990, it imported 18.3 million barrels of oil from Russia, China and Iran. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian imports dropped 90 percent. By 1996, oil imports were only 40 percent of what they were in 1990.

North Korea turned to China, but China backed away, requiring all trade with them be carried out in hard currency, starting in 1993. China also cut its grain shipments to North Korea from 800,000 tons to 300,000 tons in 1994.

Additionally, the North Koreans suffered a series of natural disasters in the mid’-90s that further crippled their already archaic system. Many of their industrial plants and much of their machinery was ready for retirement by this time, and the country had great difficulty in attracting any foreign investment.

The result was that all sectors of commercial energy declined between 1990 and 1996. The Koreans turned to biomass and cut down most of their forests. This led to more flooding and rising soil erosion. The soils were further depleted because vegetation was burned rather than returned to the ground as mulch and compost.

By 1996, total energy consumption dropped by 51 percent. Agriculture was perhaps the hardest hit of all sectors. Without the fossil fuels to make fertilizer, the industrial food production system collapsed. More than 3 million people died.

Now, look briefly at Cuba. The story here begins much the same as North Korea, but the outcome is vastly different.

At the time of the revolution, only 8 percent of the farmers controlled 70 percent of the land. The peasants had nothing. When the revolution came, the wealthy and oppressive landowners fled to the U.S. The peasants seized the land.

The new government gave them training, supplies, guaranteed markets and crop insurance. The revolution was followed by three periods of agrarian reform, in 1959, again in 1963, and the land reform of the 1990s.

Today, members of the National Association of Small Producers (ANAP) grow 52 percent of all the vegetables raised in Cuba; 67 percent of the corn, and 85 percent of the tobacco. Another 20,000 small farmers operate independently of any cooperatives. They cultivate about 1 percent of the arable land.

By the 1980s, Cuba had topped most of Latin America in nutrition, life expectancy, education and per capita gross national product. The literacy rate was 96 percent, and 95 percent of the population had access to clean drinking water.

Up to the 1980s, Cuban agriculture was more mechanized than any other Latin country. Sugar was the country’s main export–about 75 percent of the total–and state-owned sugar plantations covered three times more farmland than food crops.

Cuba had to import 60 percent of its foodstuffs from Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost 85 percent of its trade. Fertilizer, pesticides and animal feeds were cut by 80 percent. Undernourishment leaped by 20 percent.

Cuba had to recover, but how? The answer proved to be simple, but not easy. It was organic agriculture. Cuba, unlike North Korea, did not try to perpetuate an unsustainable system based on fossil fuels.

Single-handedly, without aid from outside sources, Cuba has turned around its food production, opting for a system of smaller farms and the use of organic fertilizer and natural enemies to combat insect pests, use of resistant plant varieties, crop rotation and cover cropping to hold down weeds.

The new farms are organized as cooperatives, owned and operated by the workers. Biofertilizers have been developed, using earthworms, compost, natural rock phosphates, animal manure and green manure.

Another development is urban gardens. Today, half the produce consumed in Havana is grown in urban gardens. These gardens provide 60 percent of all the vegetables eaten in Cuba.

The net result of all this: average intake per person amounts to 2,473 calories and 51.6 grams, an increase of 33 percent in caloric intake over 1994.

So the Cubans are eating well while the North Koreans are starving.

As Dale Allen Pfeiffer, an energy expert, said: “Now is the time for people to study agroecology (and permaculture as well), with an eye toward implementing this technology, once declining fossil fuel production sparks a crisis in industrial agriculture. Our survival will depend upon our ability to implement these ideas once the current technology has failed. The North Korean example shows that the alternative is unthinkable” (fromthewilderness.com).

From the April 13-19, 2005, issue

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