Archive for June 20th, 2008

How Not to Be the Next North Korea

Sharon June 20th, 2008

John Feffer has a really, really good article over at Asia Times Online.  It points out the deep danger we’re in – how teetery both the world and America’s food and energy systems are.  It is well worth a read, particularly because of its clear articulation of the bind we’re in – the strategies we’ve used in the past to get out of disaster will only accellerate collapse in the very slightly longer term. 

 The analogy that I’ve been using for some time is to the seawater used to extract oil in the Ghawar and other aging giant oilfields.  Matt Simmons, the world’s expert on this subject, argues that you can make the oil production levels look good for a while – but the seawater you pump in only accellerates the day that disaster strikes.  And that’s true of our agriculture – at this point, we’re in a losing race between expanding food production and climate change – all the conventional strategies for growing more food push us faster and faster towards the day that the planet can produce much, much less food.  Every bite of food we eat now through conventional means takes food out of the mouths of our children.

I think many people, deep in their hearts, think that ecological disasters apply mostly to other people.  But, of course, as Midwesterners are finding out right now, that’s not true. And it isn’t over – every image of floodwaters we see is brown – washing precious topsoil away, and pushing artificial fertilizers into water tables.  And the rest of us will be thoroughly schooled in that lesson as well, most likely. 

So how do we avoid becoming North Korea – are there personal or policy approaches that can fix this?  Could you have guessed that I have some suggestions, some obvious, some perhaps not.

The first one is obvious – we need to get the oil and gas out of agriculture – and rapidly.  Farmers are already struggling to afford the fossil fueled inputs that are required for conventional agriculture, and industrial organic agriculture is almost as dependent on fossil fuels as conventional.  And all the fossil fuels, especially artificial nitrogen,  that we use are preventing future generations from eating.  Heck, it won’t take until future generations grow up – most of us under 50 will probably live to see it.

We’re seeing now just how oil and natural gas costs reverbate through the food system, and while it is possible to use wise forms of management to reduce those reverbations, the only possible way to stabilize the food supply and seperate it from volatile energy prices is to end the dependency of the food supply on fossil fuels.  We know that this is possible – besides the study mentioned in the paper above, other studies, including one last year at University of Michigan and a host of others have shown that organic agriculture can match and exceed yields.  Moreover, organic practices that match yields in optimal seasons often exceed conventional yields in times of plant stress – that is organic soils rich in matter hold up better to drought, heavy rains and other difficult conditions.  It isn’t a panacea, but in a world where drought and flooding are inevitable, we need the best cultural practices possible.

 But doing this involves replacing the oil and gas with *people* – that is, when Cuba moved to organic agriculture, it matched and exceeded agricultural yields on small farms.  But the large collective farms owned by the state never could match up yields – one of the agronomists concluded that “farms of this scale are not easily compatible with organic production.”  And that’s the problem – we can get our need for fossil fuels in agriculture down quite low, but we can’t do it without paying more people a living wage to grow food.  And no, this isn’t just me, the UNESCO report made essentially the same claims.

Which brings me to the second conclusion – gardens are even more essential in the fossil transition than they may be overall.  Think about it – food prices are already high – a shift in our economy towards more agricultural labor, and paying farmers better will keep food prices reasonably high, and involve large scale economic changes. That means the cheapest food out there is going to be food grown by those who are not depending on it to make a living – who grow food for subsistence or for very small scale sales on their own land or on community land.  And because they are less dependent on either hired labor or fossil fuels, gardens are the future of affordable food in the US.  Will they meet every need?  No.  But they can make the difference between getting by and widespread hunger. 

The next point is perhaps a bit less obvious.  A few years ago, in my paper “The Ethics of Biofuels” almost no one noticed that one of my principles was that we had to shift our “biofuel’ priorities from corn and soybeans for ethanol and biodiesel to…trees.  For wood.  And perhaps even more importantly, for climate stabilization and for erosion control and soil repair. The home heating crisis I’ve been discussing for years is beginning.  And there is the real danger that the US will deforest itself nearly as badly trying to keep warm as North Korea did trying to grow food.  The long term consequences of that would be horrifying. 

Thus, instead of pushing to grow food on marginal land, moving Crop Protected soils into production (which we’re seeing now), we need to use hilly and marginal lands to grow forests, ideally forests at least partly composed of edible protein, oil and other crops.   We will need the wood, as home heating moves back to biofuels. We will also need the erosion control – midwestern fields once had hedgerows, that could stop the flow of soil, provide space for wildlife, and wood for stoves.  Bringing back the hedgerows might be a beginning strategy.

In already forested areas, the struggle is going to be for management.  And that’s going to have to be a big, big focus of our energies.  The thing is, it gets bloody cold up here ,and most of us have gotten used to “room temperature” being a heck of a lot warmer than it was in any other period of human history during northern winters.  The temptation to burn just a little more is going to be vast.  But we can’t – the pollution will be a disaster, and the deforestation worse.

So we’re going to have to strictly self-regulate our forests – and plant new ones as fast as we can.  And since this is not likely to make it on to the public agenda anytime soon, we’re going to have to do it on our own, on the small pieces of soil we tend.

It wouldn’t be easy for us to turn into North Korea – it would take a lot of bad management.  But it wouldn’t be so hard we couldn’t do it, either.  We’ve got to do better.