Mother Earth’s Triple Whammy

Linked with John Feffer – USA.

Published on TomDispatch.com, by John Feffer, June 17, 2008.

… In the 1990s, North Korea was the world’s canary. The famine that killed as much as 10% of the North Korean population in those years was, it turns out, a harbinger of the crisis that now grips the globe – though few saw it that way at the time.

That small Northeast Asian land, one of the last putatively communist countries on the planet, faced the same three converging factors as we do now – escalating energy prices, a reduction in food supplies, and impending environmental catastrophe. At the time, of course, all the knowing analysts and pundits dismissed what was happening in that country as the inevitable breakdown of an archaic economic system presided over by a crackpot dictator.

They were wrong. The collapse of North Korean agriculture in the 1990s was not the result of backwardness. In fact, North Korea boasted one of the most mechanized agricultures in Asia. Despite claims of self-sufficiency, the North Koreans were actually heavily dependent on cheap fuel imports. (Does that already ring a bell?) In their case, the heavily subsidized energy came from Russia and China, and it helped keep North Korea’s battalion of tractors operating. It also meant that North Korea was able to go through fertilizer, a petroleum product, at one of the world’s highest rates. When the Soviets and Chinese stopped subsidizing those energy imports in the late 1980s and international energy rates became the norm for them, too, the North Koreans had a rude awakening.

Like the globe as a whole, North Korea does not have a great deal of arable land — it can grow food on only about 14% of its territory. (The comparable global figure for arable land is about 13%.) With heavy applications of fertilizer and pesticides, North Koreans coaxed a lot of food out of a little land. By the 1980s, however, the soil was exhausted, and agricultural production was declining. So spiking energy prices hit an economy already in crisis. Desperate to grow more food, the North Korean government instructed farmers to cut down trees, stripping hillsides to bring more land into cultivation …

… In the long run, the only realistic response is a comprehensive program to address, in tandem, the triple crises of energy, climate, and land and water resource exhaustion. If policymakers take into consideration only one, or even two, of the components of this trinity, they may well end up doing more harm than good. The making of biofuels from corn, for instance, was an attempt to address the problems of the cost of energy and the dangers of climate change, but it neglected to consider the effect on agricultural production – hence, the disastrously soaring price of corn. Calls for the next phase of a Green Revolution, which address agricultural production, are guaranteed to play havoc with the energy and water crises.

Such partial approaches don’t work largely because they assume unlimited resources. The original sin of unrestrained growth can be found in the economic theologies of both communism and capitalism. In these systems, neither the state nor the market has ever operated according to ecological principles. Now, we must quickly explore ways of boosting agricultural production in fundamentally sustainable ways without, somehow, expanding our carbon footprint.

Certainly organic farming will play a role here. Although Green Revolution guru Norman Borlaug has dismissed organic agriculture as incapable of feeding the world, an important new study published by Cambridge University Press shows that organic systems in developing countries can produce 80% more than conventional farms.

Integrated farming systems that rely on sustainable energy – solar, wind, tidal – will also be critical. No-till agriculture can cut down on energy use and soil erosion.

While properly wary of snake-oil salesmen, neither can we afford to be Luddites. New technologies will play a role as well, as long as they reduce fertilizer and pesticide use, don’t shackle debt-ridden farmers to major seed companies, and meet strict consumer safety requirements.

Even if global food prices stabilize this year and projections of a record grain harvest hold, the underlying problems will remain.

So it was with North Korea. With emergency assistance, the country pulled back from the brink by 2000. In 2008, however, it is again in a serious food crisis, thanks to high energy prices, flooding, and a shortfall in last year’s grain harvest. Once again, North Korea is the world’s canary. As we sit in the dark in the deep hole that we’ve dug for ourselves, will we finally heed its warning? (full text).

(John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus FPIF at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is the author of numerous articles on food policy and on North Korea).

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