Will we end up like Cuba or like North Korea?

From YAN Hairong <yhairong@uiuc.edu>
Date Wed, 15 Feb 2006 01:01:09 -0600
Cc dale.wen@gmail.com

A message forwarded from Dale Wen. 

Saul, can you sign Dale up on the zhongguo list? She tried to
sign up and has not succeeded. Hairong

The review by Bruce Cumings as recommended by Hairong is quite
interesting, I just want to add one crucial factor--oil in the
understanding of  the recent disastrous famine in North Korea.
I recently wrote the attached article "Will we end up like
Cuba, or like North Korea?" in preparation for a lecture
titled "political implication of unsustainability". It
emphasized the urgent need to re-structure our food system, to
regain local food sufficiency, otherwise we will end up like
North Korea: instead of ideological failure as depicted by
western media, its famine was largely due to premature "end
oil" scenario caused by the sudden collapse of Soviet Bloc.
Now with the coming "peak oil", it is a challenge virtually
all countries have to face. This article is actually inspired
by a lengthy conversation I had with a leading agriculture
expert from China.

Happy reading.


Will we end up like Cuba or like North Korea?

(by Dale Wen, International Forum on Globalization)

The famine in North Korea is probably the most misunderstood
disaster in recent years. It is generally attributed to the
failure of the communist regime or whatever tag you want to
put on the government in that country. The argument is simple:
if the government is controlling everything in its country, it
must be responsible for crop failure as well. But this
ideological blame game hides a much more fundamental problem:
the failure of industrial chemical farming. With the coming
peak oil, many other countries may experience similar
disasters as well [1].


North Korea had developed its economy according to the usual
narrative of modernization: mechanized chemical farming and
rapid urbanization. By the end of 1980s, about 70% of the
population was urbanized, with only 30% remaining on the land.
The farming was heavily dependent on imported machines,
petroleum, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This
industrial farming worked out fine until the collapse of the
Soviet Bloc in 1989.  Import of oil, farming equipments,
fertilizers and pesticides dropped, and this caused the
following famine.


Cuba faced similar challenges but avoided the disaster. Due to
the break up of the Soviet Bloc and the tightening of US
embargo, Cuba lost 85 percent of its trade, and its
agricultural input was suddenly reduced by more than 50%.
During the height of its food crisis, the daily ration was
reduced to one banana and two slices of bread per person per
day in some places. Fortunately, its tropical climate allowed
people to survive with this quite limited diet. Meanwhile,
Cuba engaged in a national effort to restructure agriculture.
Traditional methods of organic farming were revived, and new
cutting edge bio-technology [2] was developed. The new Cuban
agriculture consists of a diverse combination of organic
farming, permaculture, urban gardens, animal traction,
biological fertilizing and pest control. On a national level,
today's Cuba probably has the world most ecological and
socially sensitive agriculture in the world. [3]

In a sense, both North Korea and Cuba experienced the peak oil
prematurely and abruptly due to the collapse of Soviet Bloc
and the intensified trade embargo. The quite different
outcomes are partly due to luck: the Cubans are much more
fortunate with their climate--with the harsh winters in North
Korea, people simply cannot survive with one banana and two
slices of bread per day. But the more fundamental reason is
political: instead of trying to carry on business as usual as
long as possible, like North Korea, Cuba has implemented a
proactive and sensible policy to make a transition towards
sustainable agriculture and self-sufficiency.

The global food system we are familiar with depends crucially
cheap energy and long distance transportation, and the coming
peak oil is shaking the very foundation of this system. Thus
the hardship Cuba and North Korea experienced in the 1990s may
very well be the future we all have to face, especially for
the already ailing rural sector in many third world countries.
Fortunately, Cuba agriculture shows that there is an
alternative--increasing output and growing better food while
reducing chemical inputs is achievable with proper
re-structuring of agriculture and food system. It is probably
unlikely that we will have an abrupt "peak oil" scenario where
about half of the agricultural input disappears overnight,
more likely we will have gradually yet steadily rising oil
price, making conventional chemical inputs increasingly
unaffordable. This is the advantage we have over Cuba and
North Korea— while virtually nobody predicted the sudden
collapse of Soviet Bloc, we know peak oil is coming and have
more time to prepare for it; and we can learn from their
examples. We have disadvantages as well: peak oil will be a
global crisis, probably made worse by global warming, so there
will be unlikely any international aid to bail people out in
the face of a major food crisis—either we deal with the
problem now, or nature will deal with us.  Not only
politicians, but also ordinary people need to consider the
question: should we try to shore up the system and carry on
business as usual for as long as possible, or should we take
preemptive measures to avoid disaster? This may decide whether
we will end up with a more sustainable agriculture like Cuba,
or with disastrous famine like North Korea.





[1] "Peak oil" refers to the point at which global oil
production finally peaks and begins its inevitable decline.
The exact timing of the "peak" is still being debated. But it
is generally agreed that it is inevitable and signifies that
the era of cheap energy is ending.

[2] Contrary to technology developed by agro-giants like
Monsanto etc., the new Cuban agro-technology is largely
focused on local and low-input ecological methods.
[3] Cuba's transition is well documented in book "Sustainable
Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in
Cuba" and video "The Greening of Cuba". Both co-published by
Food First (Institute for Food and Development Policy) and
available at http://www.foodfirst.org/taxonomy/term/231
YAN Hairong (surname capitalized)
Assistant Professor of Anthropology 
& East Asian Languages and Cultures
University of Illinois, 

Mailing address:
109 Davenport Hall
607 S. Mathews Ave.
Urbana, IL 61801