When we think of the problems associated with peak oil, our first
thoughts may turn to transport, electricity, or plastics. The use that
tends not to come to mind, yet could be the most devastating of them
all, is agriculture.
The Diesel Farm
Oil and gas are essential to modern farming. The most obvious use is
to run the tractors and machines. Car drivers can switch to public transport,
lorries can move their goods (partially, at least) to railways, but the
only option for a tractor or combine harvester is a horse or an ox.
modern agriculture could not switch to an animal-power-based system and
hope to continue with modern yields. A tractor can plough in an hour
an area that a horse would take a day to (0.9–1 hectare). The horse
also needs more skill and you have to put aside some of your
of the vast fields of maize and wheat of the USA using only horse- and
But diesel is only one of the uses for oil and gas. Another, possibly
more important use, is petrochemicals.
Nitrogen is one of the most important elements in fertilisers. In the
most common method, the Haber-Bosch process, hydrogen is combined with
nitrogen to form ammonia. It requires high temperatures and strong atmospheric
pressure, therefore a great deal of energy. The nitrogen is taken from
the atmosphere while the hydrogen is obtained from natural gas. The process
became economical in the 1920s and since then, fertilisers have become
indispensable. Worldwide use of commercial fertiliser more than doubled
between the late 1960s and early 1980s.
The use of fertilisers allows farmers to grow the same crops each year,
rather than rotating (previously farmers planted fields with legumes that
restored nitrogen to the soil.)
Oil and gas are also used in the production of many herbicides and pesticides.
The Example of North Korea
image left is a satellite picture of the Korean peninsula with south-west
Japan to the bottom right (from visibleearth.nasa.gov).
Move the mouse over the image to see the outlines of the countries. The
difference in energy between the North and South is dramatic.
The problems affecting North Korea , as highlighted by Tony Boys on his
show the what happens when oil and gas are removed from modern agriculture.
There were other factors such as mismanagement and droughts, but
the loss of hydrocarbons certainly made a difference.
North Korea has no oil or gas so everything that they used has to be
imported. After the end of the Korean War in 1953, crop yields increased
with the utilisation of modern farming methods. Traditional agricultural
practices were abandoned for the 'more efficient' modern methods employing
diesel-based tractors and machinery and chemical fertilisers, herbicides
Around 1990 the Soviet Union collapsed and support was withdrawn from
North Korea and all transactions consequently has to be settled with hard
cash. The result was a collapse in the economy and a decrease in the energy
supply. The fertility of the soil declined with the loss of production.
Replanting without fertilisers meant that fields became more and more
barren. Traditional farming is too small to replace the losses and animals
are in short supply. Tractors, transport and machinery lie rusting (it
was estimated that only 20% of all farm machinery was in working order
in the late 1990s. In the late 1980s, 25% of the workforce was engaged
in agriculture; this has risen to 36% in the mid 1990s. With mainly human
power available, harvest time results in crop wastage. Poor yields result
in little money and the inability to buy in fertilisers, diesel and animals
Hope from Cuba
The example of North Korea might suggest that agriculture is doomed
in the future but the example of Cuba shows that that is not necessarily
the case. In many ways, Cuba and North Korea are very similar. They are
almost the same size (111,000 km2 for Cuba and 120,000km2 for
North Korea in land area), both rather isolated in geography and politics,
governed by a central dictatorship. But whereas North Korea has a population
of 23 million and a leadership which relies on secrecy, fear and strict
obedience, Cuba has a population of 11 million and a forward-thinking,
Cuba's economic problems mirrored North Korea's in other ways. It too
suffered with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and also
had to deal with a far-reaching US embargo which prohibited sales of
to the island. In the face of these problems, Castro produced a new and
discerning revolution – to completely transform the country's agricultural
system from an intensive, monocultural system to a smaller, more organic
one. Production and storage was moved closer to urban areas to reduce
transport costs. Urban agriculture was introduced, ranging from personal
gardening (similar to allotments in the UK) to organised farms within
the urban or greenbelt areas.
Other techniques are used to replace the oil and petrochemicals previously
used. Tractors are being replaced by oxen, the use of natural pest control
researched and encouraged, co-operation between farmers increased, and
State incentives to reverse the flow of population from towns to the
Cuba has not yet solved all its problems but it shows that we can deal
with the loss of oil in agriculture if we want to. It has the advantage
though of a fairly small land area, so reducing transport needs, and
an existing form of government that practises far-reaching socialist
control with the general support of its people. They also have the advantage
of conducting their experiment while the rest of the world is not competing
with them for natural resources. In larger, highly industrialised, laisser-faire
countries, it will not be so easy.
Lessons for the Rest of the World
What happened in North Korea and Cuba reflects what may happen to the
rest of us. Our economies will also decline with the rise in oil prices.
The costs of diesel and petrochemicals will rise, the supply of oil and
gas will fall. Walter Youngquist in the Post-Petroleum
Paradigm points out:
Approximately 90% of the energy in crop production is
oil and natural gas. About one-third of the energy is to reduce the labour
input from 200 hours per hectare to 1.6 hours per hectare in grain production.
About two-thirds of the energy is for production, of which about one-third
of this is for fertilisers alone. [Measurements converted to metric]
We need to replace our modern farming systems with organic while we
have the chance. It can take years to replenish the soil with the nutrients
that monoculture takes out. We need to grow crops locally, rather than
fly them in from across the world, and encourage more allotments and
vegetable gardens. Larger countries will have to subdivide into smaller,
more autonomous regions, producing the food that they need within their
areas. As the "Post-Petroleum
notes, we could not support six billion people with traditional farming
methods. If we do not reduce the population voluntarily famine will
it for us.
These charts indicate how agriculture in one country,
the UK, changed in the last half of the 20th century. They indicate
the difficulties of returning from our modern, hydrocarbon -based
system to one based on human/animal power and organics.
|** Indicates chart updated for 2008
*For those people who do not
accept this view of Cuba, consider these comparisons from the CIA World
|per 1000 live births
|years average both sexes
|in adult population
I do not claim from this that Cuba
is some kind of Socialist paradise and the USA of course has a far
higher GDP (and debt). The number of people trying to cross to the
USA every year shows some dissatisfaction (or desire to earn more money).
But when you consider quality of life as opposed to simple earnings,
Cuba is not as bad as it is often painted.