September 27, 2011
Peak oil is fast approaching, a reality that is widely recognized by many scientific communities and governmental bodies. Many estimate that oil will peak by 2030, if it has not already. When this occurs, oil supplies will begin to decline, making it harder and more expensive to extract every drop. Our food system as it stands today is not prepared to gracefully withstand that decline.
As Roni Neff and colleagues illustrate in their article “Peak Oil, Food Systems, and Public Health,” recently published in the American Journal of Public Health as part of a supplement addressing peak petroleum, our globalized industrial food system relies heavily on oil at every step. Pesticides and herbicides are petroleum products. Farm machinery is manufactured with and runs on petroleum as an energy source. And transporting food extraordinary distances is only possible because of the oil that powers planes, ships and trucks. A large shock in oil prices would have an enormous impact on the current food system.
Given the inevitability of peak oil and the obvious effects it would have on food production and consumption, “transitioning to a postpetroleum food system is not optional,” argue Neff et al. And the authors have an idea of what that transition should entail:
“The lower-oil agriculture we describe is not a return to the past. Rather, the shift is toward knowledge-intensive ecological agriculture, combining new science and localized data analysis with historical wisdom to manage ecological forces in their complexity and relationships for resilient food needs.”
As I read this call for a more resilient food production, I was reminded of a food system I’ve seen before. It’s a food system that focuses on diverse, local production with minimum transportation. It has a heavy emphasis on research, local data collection, ecological harmony and sustainable methods. It harkens back to the wisdom of the past but moves forward in its adaptation to a changing environment and growing food needs. And what’s more, it became that way after experiencing its own “peak oil.”
While Cuba may be far away from the U.S. politically, ideologically, geographically and historically, its food system once looked much like ours. From the 1960s to 1990s, Cuba enjoyed a special trade relationship with the Soviet Union. Big state farm enterprises worked more than 80% of the land, which was dedicated to monocrop production of a few crops—mainly sugar, tobacco and citrus—that were mainly exported to the Soviet bloc. Cuba, in return, received heavily subsidized oil and other agricultural inputs (pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides) to make their agricultural system work. Cuba also relied heavily on food imports because so much of its land was dedicated to production for export. But by the end of 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Cuba’s agricultural inputs sharply declined.
When Cuba lost over two-thirds of its oil and other oil-based agricultural inputs, its heavily petroleum-dependent food system went into major shock. There was no oil to power the tractors to transport food, no pesticides to fight off the pests or fertilizer to grow the crops (in a system without integrated pest management or methods of fertilizing organically). The 1990s were dubbed the “Special Period in Peacetime,” a chilling title considering the population lost on average 5 to 25% of its body weight. In 1993, Cubans were only able to satisfy less than two-thirds of their caloric needs. The absence of oil in the presence of an oil-dependent food system made for widespread food insecurity and starvation.
With a trade embargo from the U.S. and a lack of friendly trading partners, Cuba had to rebuild strength from within and completely rethink where its food was going to come from. People with no farming experience began growing food in any land available—vacant lots, rooftops, backyard gardens. Animal labor took the place of tractors. Soon after, the government recognized the importance of that movement and the need for food. They decentralized agriculture by breaking up state-held land for smaller scale producers. They gave away state land in usufruct to thousands of people. Every level of government has since institutionalized investment in the success of sustainable agriculture in Cuba, and there are now several support systems to help farmers produce without the oil-based inputs the country’s agriculture was once so dependent upon. Education and research have been ramped up to find the most productive, lowest-input systems to produce as much food as possible within an agroecological framework. Farmers have organized into cooperatives and now make living wages. As of 2005, it is estimated that 350,000 jobs were created in urban agriculture alone.
By 2005, Cuba was satisfying its own needs of the UN-established 300 grams of fruits and vegetables per capita per day. According to an FAO report in 2008, Cuba has met their World Food Summit and Millennium Development Goals—fewer than 5% of Cubans are undernourished.
It is important to note that Cuba is still dependent on food imports for some products other than fruits and vegetables. In 2000, the U.S. made an exception to its embargo for agricultural products and food, and within two years became its largest supplier of those commodities. Any shocks to the U.S. food system due to peak oil would now affect Cuba. However, Cuba’s own agricultural production is undeniably more resilient than ours to declining global oil supplies.
Despite obvious differences between our countries, the story of Cuba’s food system surely has lessons we can learn from—the devastating effects of declining oil on an ill-prepared food system and what a new system must entail to weather that shock. The question remains whether we will be willing to learn before or after the effects of peak oil can no longer be ignored. As Neff et al, point out:
“Perhaps the largest challenge is that few want to think about peak oil and other ecological threats such as climate change and soil depletion— never mind committing to precautionary change… Change carries cost and risk. So, however, does inaction.”
++ Click here for an article on Cuba’s “De Facto Organic” food system.
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