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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

Tractor 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. Clearly 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 crop to feed it. Imagine trying to gather the harvests of the vast fields of maize and wheat of the USA using only horse- and human-power.

But diesel is only one of the uses for oil and gas. Another, possibly more important use, is petrochemicals.

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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.

Fertiliser Use (world)

G1. Nitrogen Fertiliser Use (World) **

Fertiliser Use (N Korea)

G2. Nitrogen Fertiliser Use (N. Korea) **

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The Example of North Korea

Koreas at nightThe image left is a satellite picture of the Korean peninsula with south-west Japan to the bottom right (from 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 website, graphically 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 and pesticides.

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 to help.

Cereal production N Korea

G3. Cereal Production (N. Korea) **

Population in agriculture

G4. Percent. Population in Agriculture

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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, and both 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, open leader.*

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 food and medicine 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 country.

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.

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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 Paradigm" notes, we could not support six billion people with traditional farming methods. If we do not reduce the population voluntarily famine will do it for us.

Land used in agriculture

G5. Agricultural Land Use (UK)

Population in agriculture

G6. Population in Agriculture (UK)

Fertiliser and Yields

G7. Fertiliser and Yields (UK)

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


Further Information
Causes and Lessons of the "North Korean Food Crisis" (PDF)
Information on Cuba 1 Information on Cuba 2


*For those people who do not accept this view of Cuba, consider these comparisons from the CIA World Factbook 2007.

  Cuba USA N. Korea Details
Population Growth
Infant Mortality
per 1000 live births
Life Expectancy
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.



The Diesel Farm


North Korea


Lessons for the World


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