The Collapse of Agriculture

ODERN INDUSTRIAL agriculture is unsustainable. It has been pushed to the limit and is in danger of collapse. As we saw earlier in this book, we have already appropriated all of the prime agricultural land on this planet; all that remains is a small percentage of marginal lands and those areas — deserts, mountains, polar regions — that are completely unsuitable. As a result, biological diversity — the underpinning of life on this planet — has been diminished nearly to the breaking point.

Moreover, our soils and fresh water resources have been degraded and depleted nearly to the crisis point. Our farm crops have been genetically reduced to weak, high-yield hybrids that are susceptible to any number of pests, and that offer a minimum of nourishment. Our land and water resources, and even our food, are also highly tainted with toxins we have over-applied in an effort to protect our food crops from pests. And our farmlands have been concentrated into agribusinesses dedicated to maximizing short-term profit — while, incidentally, undermining our ability to support ourselves with local agriculture.

Even without considering energy depletion, our agricultural system is ready to collapse. Yet, the abundance of cheap food given to us by the Green Revolution has resulted in an exponential population boom. So we must now address a very serious question. Without the cheap, abundant supply of fossil fuels that has made possible the industrialization of agriculture, and that has allowed an explosion in food production at an energy deficit of ten to one, has the human population exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet? And if so, by how much?

Population and Sustainability

Assuming a growth rate of 1.1 percent per year, US population is projected to double by 2050. As the population expands, an estimated one acre of land will be lost for every additional person. Currently, 1.8 acres of farmland are available to grow food for each US citizen. By 2050, this will decrease to 0.6 acres. However, 1.2 acres per person is required to maintain current nutritional stan-dards.1

Presently, only two nations on the planet are major exporters of grain: the United States and Canada.2 By 2025, it is expected that the US will cease to be a food exporter due to domestic demand. The impact on the US economy could be devastating, as food exports earn $40 billion annually. More importantly, millions of people around the world could starve to death without US food exports.3

In the US, 34.6 million people were living in poverty according to 2002 census data.4 This number continues to grow at an alarming rate. Too many of these people do not have enough food. As the situation worsens, this number will increase and the United States could witness growing numbers of starvation fatalities.

There are some things that we can do to at least alleviate this tragedy. It's been suggested that streamlining agriculture to get rid of losses, waste, and mismanagement might cut the energy inputs for food production by up to one-half.5 In place of fossil fuel-based fertilizers, we could use livestock manures that are now being wasted. It is estimated that livestock manures contain five times the amount of nutrients fertilizers currently provide each year.6 Perhaps the most effective step would be to eliminate meat from our diet altogether.7

Mario Giampietro and David Pimentel postulate that a sustainable food system is possible only if four conditions are met.

1. Environmentally sound agricultural technologies must be implemented.

2. Renewable energy technologies must be put into place.

3. Major increases in energy efficiency must reduce exosomatic energy consumption per capita.

4. Population size and consumption must be compatible with maintaining the stability of environmental processes.8

Providing that the first three conditions are met, with a reduction to less than half of the exosomatic energy consumption per capita, the authors place the maximum US population for a sustainable national economy at 200 million.9 Several other studies have produced figures within this ballpark.10 Given that the current US population is more than 297 million," that would mean a reduction of 97 million. To achieve a sustainable economy and avert disaster, the United States must reduce its population by at least one-third. The black plague during the 14th century claimed approximately one-third of the European population (and more than half of the Asian and Indian populations), plunging that continent into a darkness from which it took them nearly two centuries to emerge.12

Personally, I can only hope that a fairer distribution of wealth and resources will help ease us down the path of depopulation. And I hope that the decline rate will be gradual enough that our population can shrink with the least amount of suffering. But I can only hope, recognizing sadly that depopulation runs contrary to the basic drive to procreate, and that depopulation has never been managed before without a die-off.

None of this research considers the impact of declining fossil fuel production. At the time of these studies, the authors believed that the agricultural crisis would only begin to impact us after 2020, and would not become critical until 2050. The current peaking of global oil production (and subsequent decline of production after 2010), along with the peaking of North American natural gas production, will very likely precipitate this agricultural crisis much sooner than expected. Quite possibly, a US population reduction of one-third will not be effective for

C 13

Scenatio of world's population and hydrocarbons (liquids + gas) production: 19002100 10 i s

I n HC modH 1996-\ 2200=1100 Gboe

Population data

MC per c*xu kboe/./unhab

MC prod. 1900-199S+1020 Gboe (BOO Gb+2200 Tcf) j


- J

Fi "

1 «P"

caprtj | '

1900 1920 1940 1960 1980 2000 2020 2040 2060 2080 21

1900 1920 1940 1960 1980 2000 2020 2040 2060 2080 21

sustainability; the necessary reduction might be in excess of one-half. And for sustainability, global population will have to be reduced from the current 6.5 billion people" to 2 billion — a reduction of 68 percent or over two-thirds." The end of this decade could see spiraling food prices without relief. And the coming decade could see massive starvation on a global level such as never experienced before by the human race.

The Example of North Korea

What happens to an industrialized country when it loses its hydrocarbon base? Unfortunately, this very thing happened in North Korea. The Korean Peninsula has virtually no oil and no natural gas. North Korea relied on the Soviet Union for much of its energy needs. Following the crash of the Soviet Union, North Korea experienced a sharp and swiff drop in its hydrocarbon imports. The effect was disastrous.

North Korea has always had less than half the population of South Korea. When the Korean peninsula was partitioned in 1945 at the end of World War II, creating North and South Korea, South Korea was a largely agrarian society, while the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was largely an industrial soci ety. Following the war, DPRK turned to fossil fuel-subsidized agriculture to increase the productivity of its poor soils.

By 199C, DPRK's estimated per capita energy use was 71 giga-joules per person,15 the equivalent of 12.3 barrels of crude oil. This was more than twice China's per capita usage at that same time, and half of Japan's. DPRK has coal reserves estimated at from one to ten billion tons, and developable hydroelectric potential estimated at 1C-1 4 gigawatts." But North Korea must depend on imports for all of its oil and natural gas. In 199C, it imported 18.3 million barrels of oil from Russia, China, and Iran.17


Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, imports from Russia fell by 9C percent. By 1996, oil imports came to only 4C percent of the 199C level.18 DPRK tried to look to China for the bulk of its oil needs. However, China sought to distance itself economically from DPRK by announcing that all their commerce would be conducted in hard currency beginning in 1993. China also cut its shipments of "friendship grain" from 8CC,CCC tons in 1993 to 3CC,CCC tons in 1994.11

On top of the loss of oil and natural gas imports, DPRK suffered a series of natural disasters in the mid-1990s which acted to further debilitate an already crippled system. The years 1995 and 1996 saw severe flooding which washed away vital topsoil, destroyed infrastructure, damaged and silted hydroelectric dams, and flooded coal mine shafts rendering them unproductive. In 1997, this flooding was followed by severe drought and a massive tsunami. Lack of energy resources prevented the government from preparing for these disasters and hampered recovery.

DPRK also suffered from aging infrastructure. Much of its machinery and many of its industrial plants were ready for retirement by the 1990s. Because DPRK had defaulted on an enormous debt some years earlier, it had grave difficulty attracting the necessary foreign investment. The dissolution of the Soviet Union meant that DPRK could no longer obtain the spare parts and expertise to refurbish their infrastructure, leading to the failure of machinery, generators, turbines, transformers, and transmission lines. The country1 entered into a vicious positive feedback loop as failing infrastructure c u t coal and hydroelectric production and diminished their ability to transport energy via power lines, truck and rail.

The decline ir1 availability affected all sectors of commercial energy use betwe'" the years 1990 and 1996. As a result of this, North Koreans tiir"d to burning biomass, thus destroying their remaining forest?- Deforestation led, in turn, to more flooding and increasing levels °f ' u erosion. Likewise, soils were depleted as plant matter w'as burned for heat, rather than being mulched and composted.

By 1996, road ; i " freight transport were reduced to 40 percent of their 1990 levels-Ir" ">d steel production were reduced to 36 percent of 1990 levels, and cement was reduced to 32 percent.20 The effect ripple0 o u t through the automotive, building, and agricultural indu?tries. The energy shortage also affected residential and commercial lighting, heating, and cooking. This, in turn, led to loss of productivity and reduced quality of life, and adversely impacted public health. To this day, hospitals remain unheated in the </mt"> ">d lack electricity to run medical equipment. By 1996, total commercial energy consumption throughout society fell by 51 percent.21

Perhaps in n o o m e r sector was the crisis felt more acutely than in agriculture. T l e energy crisis quickly spawned a food crisis which proved to t>e fatal. Modern industrialized agriculture collapsed without fossil fuel inputs. It is estimated that over three million people hsve died as a result.22


The following gr,Jph, produced by Jean Laherrere, illustrates the relationship between petroleum consumption and agricultural collapse in DPRK-23 Note that the decline of agricultural production follows verydosely the decline of petroleum consumption. Also note that theri" m petroleum consumption after 1997 is not mirrored by a ris-' in agricultural production. Agriculture begins to make a comeblck> but appears to enter another decline sometime around 1999-We do not have enough data at present to state

North Korea: petroleum consumption and agricultural production

—■— petroleum Mb/a+4 —•— fao agriculture net pin 89-91

120 IIS 110 105 100 95 90 85 80 76 70

1SB0 1985 1220 1265 2000


Jean Laheirere conclusively the reasons why this recovery has faltered. It is likely a combination of factors, such as failure of farm equipment and infrastructure, adverse weather, and — quite likely — the failure of soils which have been depleted of minerals over the past decade. In any case, the above graph sums up the agricultural collapse of DPRK and hints at the suffering that collapse has entailed.


Agriculture in DPRK requires approximately 700,000 tons of fertilizer per year.24 The country used to manufacture 80 to 90 percent of its own fertilizers, somewhere from 600,000 to 800,000 tons per year. Since 1995, it has had difficulty producing even 100,000 tons per year. Aid and foreign purchases brought the total for 1999 to 160,000 tons, less than one quarter of the required amount.25

The DPRK fertilizer industry relies on coal as both an energy source and a feedstock. It requires 1.5 to 2 million tons of coal per year to produce 700,000 tons of fertilizer.26 To obtain this coal, the fertilizer industry must compete with the steel industry,

—■— petroleum Mb/a+4 —•— fao agriculture net pin 89-91

1SB0 1985 1220 1265 2000

Year electricity generation, home heating and cooking needs, and a host of other consumers. Flooded mine shafts and broken-down mining equipment have severely cut the coal supply. Likewise, delivery of this coal has been reduced by the breakdown of railway infrastructure. Furthermore, transporting two million tons of coal by rail requires five billion kilowatt hours of electricity,27 while electricity is in short supply because of lack of coal, silting of dams, and infrastructure failure. So once again we have another vicious positive feedback loop. Finally, infrastructure failure limits the ability to ship the fertilizer — 1 . 5 to 2.5 million tons in bulk — from factories to farms.2'

The result of this systemic failure is that agriculture in DPRK operates with only 20 to 30 percent of the normal soil nutrient inputs.29 The reduction in fertilizer is the largest single contributor to its reduced crop yields. Tony Boys has pointed out that to run the country's fertilizer factories at capacity would require the energy equivalent of at least five million barrels of oil, which represents one quarter of all the oil imported into DPRK in recent years.30 However, even capacity production at this point would be inadequate. For the past decade, soils in the DPRK have been depleted of nutrients to the point that it would now require a massive soil building and soil conservation program to reverse the damage.

Diesel Fuel

Agriculture has been further impacted by the limited availability of diesel fuel. Diesel fuel is required to run the fleet of approximately 70,000 tractors, ',000 tractor crawlers, as well as 60,000 small motors used on small farms in DPRK.31 Diesel is also required for transporting produce to market and for food processing equipment. It is estimated that in 1990, North Korean agriculture used 120,000 tons of diesel fuel. Since then, the amount used by agriculture has declined to between 25,000 and 35,000 tons per year.32

Compounding the diesel supply problem is its military allocation, which has not been cut proportionally with the drop in production. Only after the military takes its allocation can the other sectors of society — including agriculture, transportation, and industry — divide the remainder. So, while total supplies of diesel have dropped by 60 percent, the agricultural share of the remainder has fallen from 15 percent in 1990 to 10 percent currently.33 In other words, agriculture must make due with 10 percent of 40 percent, or 4 percent of the total diesel supply of 1990.

The result is an 80 percent reduction in the use of farm equipment.34 There is neither the fuel nor the spare parts to keep farm machinery running. Observers in 1998 reported seeing tractors and other farm equipment lying unused and unusable while farmers struggled to work their fields by hand. The observers also reported seeing piles of harvested grain left on the fields for weeks, leading to post-harvest crop losses.35

Lost mechanized power has been replaced by human labor and draff animals. In turn, due to their greater work load, human laborers and draft animals require more food, putting more strain on an already insufficient food supply. And although a greater percentage of the population is engaged in farm labor, they have found it impossible to perform all of the operations previously carried out by machinery.3'


Finally, the agricultural system has also been impacted by the decreased availability of electricity to power water pumps for irrigation and drainage. The annual amount of electricity necessary for irrigation throughout the nation stands at around 1.2 billion kilowatt hours. Adding another 4'0 million kilowatt hours to operate threshing and milling machines and other farm equipment brings the total needed for agriculture up to 1.7 billion kilowatt hours per year.37 This does not include the electrical demand for lighting in homes and barns, or any other rural residential uses.

Currently, electricity available for irrigation has declined by 300 million kilowatt hours, and electricity for other agricultural uses has declined by 110 million kilowatt hours. This brings the total electrical output currently available for agriculture down to 1.3 billion kilowatt hours — a shortfall of 400 million kilowatt hours from what is needed.

In reality, the situation for irrigation is even worse than indicated by these figures. Irrigation is time sensitive — especially in the case of rice, which is DPRK's major grain crop. Rice production depends on carefully timed flooding and draining. Rice is transplanted in May and harvested in late August and early September. From planting to harvest time, the rice paddies must be flooded and remain in water. In DPRK virtually all rice irrigation is managed with electrical pumps; over half of the pumping for all agriculture takes place in May. Peak pumping power demand at this time is at least 900 megawatts. This represents over one-third of the country's total generating capacity.3' The energy crisis has had a severe impact on rice irrigation.

On top of this, the national power grid is fragmented, so that at some isolated points along the grid, irrigation demand can overtax generating capacity. This overtaxed system is also dilapidated, suffering the same disrepair as other energy infrastructure, both due to weather disasters, the age of the power stations and transmitters, and the lack of spare parts.

The records of three major pumping stations showed that they suffered an average of 600 power outages per year, spending an average of 2,300 hours per year without power. These power failures resulted in an enormous loss of water, translating into an irrigation shortfall of about one-quarter of the required amount of water.39


Home energy usage is also severely impacted by the energy crisis, and — particularly in rural areas — home energy demand in turn impacts agriculture. Rural residential areas have experienced a 50 percent drop in electricity consumption, resulting in a decline in basic services and quality of life. Homes in rural villages rarely have electrical power during the winter months.40 As has already been mentioned, hospitals and clinics are not excluded from this lack of power.

Rural households use coal for heating and cooking. The average rural household is estimated to require 2.6 tons of coal per year. The total rural coal requirement is 3.9 million tons annually. Currently, rural areas receive a little more than half of this.41 On average, rural coal use for cooking, heating, and preparing animal feed has declined by 4C percent, down to 1.6 tons per year.42 Even public buildings such as schools and hospitals have limited coal supplies.

To make up for the shortfall in coal, rural populations are increasingly turning to biomass for their heating and cooking energy needs. Herbage has been taken from competing uses such as animal fodder and compost, leading to further decreased food supplies. Biomass scavenging is also stressing all rural ecosystems from forests to croplands. Biomass harvesting reduces ground cover, disrupts habitats, and leads to increasing soil erosion and siltation.

Moreover, biomass foraging requires time and effort when other labor requirements are high and food supplies are low. This contributes to the positive feedback loop of calorie requirements versus food availability. It is estimated that 25 percent of the civilian workforce was employed in agriculture in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, that had grown to 36 percent.43 Furthermore, agricultural work has grown much more labor intensive. Farm labor is conservatively estimated at a minimum of 300 million person-hours per year. However, researchers point out that this number could easily be higher by a factor of two or more.44 Workers are burning more calories and so require more food. This is further complicated by greater reliance upon draft animals with their own food requirements. So necessary caloric intake has actually increased as food production has decreased, leading to increasing malnutrition.

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