That peak oil is coming is no longer a question. It’s only a matter of when. The global food system we are familiar with depends crucially on cheap energy and long-distance transportation—food consumed in the United States travels an average of 1,400 miles. Does peak oil mean inevitable starvation? Two countries provide a preview. Their divergent stories, one of famine, one of sufficiency, stand as a warning and a model. North Korea and Cuba experienced the peak-oil scenario prematurely and abruptly due to the collapse of the former Soviet bloc and the intensified trade embargo against Cuba. The quite different outcomes are partly due to luck: the Cuban climate allows people to survive on food rations that would be fatal in North Korea’s harsh winters. But the more fundamental reason is policy. North Korea tried to carry on business as usual as long as possible, while Cuba implemented a proactive policy to move toward sustainable agriculture and self-sufficiency.
The 1990s famine in North Korea is one of the least-understood disasters in recent years. It is generally attributed to the failure of Kim Il Jung’s regime. The argument is simple: if the government controls everything, it must be responsible for crop failure. But this ideological blame game hides a more fundamental problem: the failure of industrial chemical farming. With the coming of peak oil, many other countries may experience similar disasters.
North Korea developed its agriculture on the Green Revolution model, with its dependence on technology, imported machines, petroleum, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. There were signs of soil compaction and degradation, but the industrial farming model provided enough food for the population. Then came the sudden collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989. Supplies of oil, farming equipment, fertilizers, and pesticides dropped significantly, and this greatly contributed to the famine that followed. As a November 1998 report from the joint UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program observed:
North Korea failed to change in response to the crisis. Devotion to the status quo precipitated the food shortages that continue to this day. Cuba faced similar problems. In some respects, the challenge was even bigger in Cuba. Before 1989, North Korea was self-sufficient in grain production, while Cuba imported an estimated 57 percent of its food1, because its agriculture, especially the state farm sector, was geared towards production of sugar for export.
After the Soviet collapse and the tightening of the U.S. embargo, Cuba lost 85 percent of its trade, and its fossil fuel-based agricultural inputs were reduced by more than 50 percent. At the height of the resulting food crisis, the daily ration was one banana and two slices of bread per person in some places. Cuba responded with a national effort to restructure agriculture.
Cuban agriculture now consists of a diverse combination of organic farming, perma-culture, urban gardens, animal power, and biological fertilizing and pest control. On a national level, Cuba now has probably the most ecological and socially sensitive agriculture in the world. In 1999, the Swedish Parliament awardedthe Right Livelihood Award, known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” to Cuba for these advances.
Even before the 1990 crisis, primarily in response to the negative effects of intensive chemical use as well as the 1970s energy crisis, Cuban scientists began to develop bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers to substitute for chemical inputs. They designed a two-phase program based on early experiments with biological agents. The first stage developed small-scale, localized production technologies; the second stage was aimed at developing semi-industrial and industrial technologies. This groundwork allowed Cuba to roll out substitutes for agricultural chemicals rapidly in the wake of the 1990 crisis. Since 1991, 280 centers have been established to produce biological agents using techniques and supplies specific to each locality.2
Though some alternative technologies were initially developed solely to replace chemical inputs, they are now part of a more holistic agroecology. Scientists and farmers recognized the imbalances in high-input monoculture, and are transforming the whole system. In contrast to the one-size-fits-all solution of the Green Revolution, agro-ecology tailors farming to local conditions. It designs complex agro-ecosystems that use mutually beneficial crops and locally adapted seeds, take advantage of topography and soil conditions, and maintain rather than deplete the soil.3
Agro-ecology takes a systemic approach, blurring traditional distinctions between disciplines and using knowledge from environmental science, economics, agronomy, ethics, sociology, and anthropology. It emphasizes learning by doing, with training programs allocating 50 percent of their time to hands-on work.The wide use of participatory methods greatly helps to disseminate, generate, and extend agro-ecological knowledge. In short, the agricultural research and education process has become more organic as well.4
Important institutional changes have eased the transition. Big state farms have been reorganized into much smaller farmer collectives to take advantage of the new labor-intensive, localized methods. The change from farm-laborer to skilled farmer is not an overnight process—many newly established collectives lag behind established co-ops in terms of sustainable management, but programs are in place to help them catch up.
Cuba’s research and education system played a pivotal role in the greening of the country. The focus on human development has practically eradicated illiteracy. Cuban workers have the highest percentage of post-secondary education in Latin America. This highly educated population prepared Cuba well for the transition to the more knowledge-intensive model of sustainable agriculture.
In the 1970s and 1980s, most agricultural education was based on Green Revolution technology. The 1990 crisis rendered many agro-professionals powerless without chemical inputs, machinery, and petroleum. In response, agricultural universities initiated courses in agro-ecological training. A national center was created to support new research and the educational needs of the agricultural community. Now, courses, meetings, workshops, field days, talks, and experiential exchanges are organized for farmers. As some traditional methods of organic farming have survived among small farmers or in co-ops, farmer-to-farmer communication is widely utilized to facilitate mutual learning.
The coming of peak oil will shake the very foundation of the global food system. The hardship Cuba and North Korea experienced in the 1990s may very well be the future we all face, both already ailing rural sectors in many Third-World countries, and highly subsidized agriculture in the North. Cuban agriculture shows that there is an alternative—increasing output and growing better food while reducing chemical inputs is possible with proper restructuring of agriculture and food systems.
It is unlikely that we will have an abrupt peak-oil scenario where half the fossil-fuel agricultural inputs disappear overnight; more likely we will have gradually yet steadily rising oil prices, making conventional chemical inputs increasingly unaffordable.
This is the advantage we have over Cuba and North Korea — while virtually nobody predicted the sudden collapse of the Soviet bloc, we know peak oil is coming and have time to prepare. We have disadvantages as well: peak oil will be a global crisis, probably made worse by global warming, so there will not likely be any international aid to bail people out in the face of a major food crisis—either we deal with the problem now, or nature will deal with us.
Not only politicians, but also ordinary people need to consider the question: should we try to shore up the system and carry on business as usual for as long as possible, or should we take preemptive measures to avoid disaster? This choice may determine whether we end up with a more sustainable agriculture like Cuba, or with disastrous famine like North Korea.