Why you should be growing your own food: lessons from the Cuban experience

Over the next several years food prices will increase sharply. These coming price increases are as unavoidable and inevitable as an increase in the price of oil. In fact the price we pay for food is interestingly and inextricably linked to the oil price, and this article will not only show how the two have become inseparably intertwined but how they cannot do anything other than escalate.

The really, truly inconvenient truth we face as a species is not only Global Warming, it is PeakOil as well.

PeakOil is the point in time when the total quantity of oil annually extracted from the Earth reaches its maximum. It marks the moment in time at which the first half of the Earth’s crude oil reserves will have been used up. By implication, it marks the moment in time from when the total quantity of oil annually extracted from the Earth begins to decline.

The oil remaining in the Earth will be more difficult and thus more expensive to extract, coincidentally occurring at a time when annual Global demand for crude oil is expected to increase by up to 9%, as the twin bursts of industrial growth shown by both China and India proportionally increase the demand for energy. The inevitable result of irrevocably declining production and ever-increasing demand will be inevitably higher oil prices.

Most indications are that PeakOil will occur sometime in the next three to five years, other indications are that it might have already occurred. The exact timing of PeakOil is not vitally important here because only history will really show us exactly when PeakOil happened. What matters is understanding the implications of PeakOil, one of which is that everything will change, including the price of food. PeakOil is not about running out of oil, it is about running out of cheap oil.

Oil and the food we eat

Over 90% of the developed world’s transport energy is oil sourced. The average item of food in the United States travels over 2200 kilometres from the soil to the plate, powered mostly by diesel. In South Africa we transport almost all our food by truck, from growing, preparation and packaging centres to distribution centres and outlying retail outlets and eventually to our homes.

The diesel price extends further its influence to the costs of operating the tractors and agricultural machinery that assist us to extract from our environment more food than it could otherwise produce. Additionally, the diversion of food crops such as maize, sugar, wheat and even vegetable oils into the production of alternative fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel has already had an inflationary effect on the global market prices of some of these commodities. Without doubt the cost of fuel is already an increasingly significant factor in the final price we pay for food.

Unfortunately, the price of oil does not only affect the price of transportation. The overall price of all forms of energy will increase, meaning the cost of electricity used to irrigate, prepare, package and refrigerate our favourite foods will also escalate.

Simultaneously, all the plastics that are used in the packaging of foods are petroleum derived, and so the cost of these packaging materials will too be adversely affected by the escalating price of crude oil. Producers will be forced to increase the ex-farm price of most foodstuffs to cover these increases in input costs. Increases in ex-farm costs will be met by you in increased retail prices, plain and simple.

Fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides
Petroleum by-products are the most significant raw materials used in the manufacture of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. It is estimated that grains now contain between 4 and 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of solar energy.

In 1909 two German scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch discovered and refined the process of synthesizing ammonia, a nitrogen-rich agricultural fertiliser, from coal. The process was later refined to use natural gas, and worldwide today 150 million tons of ammonia-based fertilisers are produced from fossil fuels each year.

After World War Two, chemists and chemical companies who had developed all manner of chemical compounds and explosives with which to destroy things during wartime faced the complete loss of markets as peace descended. Using experience gained during the war years they developed from petrochemicals synthetic herbicides and pesticides for use in agriculture, as well as the means to chemically combat diseases like malaria.

The ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1960’s saw the export of these practices to less developed areas of the Earth, to what became known as the Third World. The result was that by the end of the 20 th Century there were a little over 6 billion inhabitants on Planet Earth, from a mere 3 billion back in 1963. Our “cleverness” has led to an unsustainable doubling in population, artificially fed and fuelled by an abundance of cheap oil, coal and gas, and totally dependant on all manner of petrochemical derivatives. As PeakOil marks the end of these cheap petroleum derivatives, what will this massive Global population survive on?

At $250 per barrel, can we afford our current systems of food production, which cost more energy to produce food than the food can deliver to the consumer? If a leopard expends more energy in catching an impala than it can gain from eating that impala, how long before the leopard species face extinction? What is to be done?

Lessons from Cuba

Cuba ’s oil crisis
All is not lost, and there are solutions. To find them let us look to the only country that has survived an ‘artificial’ PeakOil, namely Cuba.

The island of Cuba lies about 90 nautical miles off the coast of Florida, USA. Populated by 12 million people, it is perhaps the last remaining truly socialist country in the world. Once a kind of satellite to the former USSR, it relied heavily on the Soviet Union to supply most of its imports, to buy most of its exports and most importantly to supply a bit more than half of its crude oil needs.

In 1990 the USSR experienced economic meltdown and collapse, and Cuba very nearly followed suit, losing almost overnight 85% of its trade market and fully half of its oil supply. Businesses and factories closed down, transportation came to a standstill. Electricity blackouts averaged 16 hours a day in areas, and what Cubans today refer to as “The Special Period” began.

The average Cuban lost almost 15 kilogrammes in body weight and hunger gripped the population. There began a daily battle to find enough food to eat. The average per capita calorific intake dropped by a third. Due to an embargo emplaced by the USA since the 1960’s as well as because of the loss of its export market for tobacco, sugar and citrus, Cuba could not import food. To compound things, without an adequate substitute for its fossil-fuel based large-scale farming systems, ordinary agricultural production dropped dramatically.

How Cubans survived
People were forced to start cultivating vegetables and other food wherever they could or face starvation. They replaced petroleum fuelled machinery with oxen, developed communal inner-city organic food gardens that reduced the distances food had to be transported, and they developed bio-pesticides and bio-fertilisers as petrochemical substitutes. Using principles taken from Permaculture, rooftops and patios became food producing spaces, and communities began to harmonise with each other and with the Earth.

Today, the city of Havana produces some 50% of its vegetables within the city limits, whilst most other Cuban towns and smaller cities produce 80% to over 100% of what they need. Throughout their PeakOil crisis they maintained their free healthcare system which focuses on preventative care and features a qualified doctor per 167 people. Their free education system was maintained, literacy is over 97% and there is a teacher for every 42 people in the country. The average student:teacher ratio is 1:16.

Cubans now eat a healthy, low-fat almost vegetarian diet, they exercise more by walking and riding bicycles. Significantly, they now use less than one twentieth of the quantities of chemical pesticides and herbicides than they used before the advent of “The Special Period”.

Everywhere communities have been revitalised and strengthened by the activity of sustainably producing enough food to feed themselves and have a surplus. The 30-year old motto of the country has changed from “Socialism or Death” to “A better world is possible”.

Despite its stated ideology of a centralised economy, Cuba did what it had to do to survive a crippling energy crisis by encouraging a return to an agrarian, communal lifestyle based more on a localised economic model, even in the cities.

What we can do
Are we prepared to undertake major shifts in paradigm? Do we have sufficient strength, fortitude and vision to survive the initial stages of PeakOil and come out strong enough to make any other adaptations that we might be required to?

Why not minimise the upheaval and start changing now?
Most fruit trees take several years to bear. A healthy soil with healthy levels of microbial activity can take several years to organically re-create from a previously chemically-dependent wasteland. While machines, packaging and transport are as cheap as they currently are, it makes sense to take advantage of the prevailing situation and make a start now.
Things will never cost as little as they do today.
Take the time now to learn about organic food production, no-till or minimum-till farming, Permaculture or even the “do nothing” approach of Masanobu Fukuoka.

Is it not better to make mistakes and learn the art of sustainable, petrochemical-free food production now, when the cost of those mistakes are less drastic to the fortunes of you and your family?

Which seed varieties are too dependent on the frequent and liberal application of petroleum-derived chemicals? Test and find varieties that can not only flourish under purely organic conditions, but that can re-produce themselves through several generations from saved seed. Learn about bio-pesticides and fertilising options that are effective for your conditions and soil types. Remember that in a $250 per barrel world you don’t want to be relying on systems that are too far removed from the way Nature designed them.

Make a start now because you will certainly not regret it later and the benefits to your health and that of your family cannot be underestimated. If your gardening branches out into becoming a form of community activity, so much the better.

As a result of the end of cheap oil our world is going to change beyond recognition, and to survive we will have to dramatically change the way we see and interact with that world.

Why not begin now by seeing it as a sustainable world in which everyone matters?