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August 2006: Notes of Interest

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• This information comes from “Peak oil preview: North Korea & Cuba” by Dale Jiajun Wen in the Summer 2006 issue of Yes! (PO Box 10818, Bainbridge Island WA 98110):

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, both Cuba and North Korea were cut off from the “technology, imported machines, petroleum, chemical fertilizers and pesticides that had provided food for their populations. The two countries handled this crisis in different ways.

“Before 1989 North Korea was self-sufficient in grain production.” But a 1998 report “from the joint UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program observed: ‘The highly mechanized … North Korean agriculture faces a serious constraint as about four-fifths of motorized farm machinery and equipment is out of use due to obsolescence and lack of spare parts and fuel. …In fact, because of non-availability of trucks, harvested paddy has been seen left on the fields in piles for long periods.’ North Korea failed to change in response to the crisis. Devotion to the status quo precipitated the food shortages that continue to this day.”

Before 1989 Cuba’s agriculture “was geared towards production of sugar for export. After the Soviet collapse and the tightening of the U.S. embargo, Cuba lost 85 percent of its trade, and its fossil-fuel-based agricultural inputs were reduced by more than 50 percent. At the height of the resulting food crisis, the daily ration was one banana and two slices of bread per person in some places. Cuba responded with a national effort to restructure agriculture. Cuban agriculture now consists of a diverse combination of organic farming, permaculture, urban gardens, animal power, and biological fertilizing and pest control. On a national level, Cuba now has probably the most ecological and socially sensitive agriculture in the world.”

The article points out that the whole world now faces peak oil which will “shake the very foundation of the global food system.” We can choose whether we handle it like North Korea or like Cuba. “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?”

• There are two excellent articles that trace the connections between seemingly diverse world challenges:

The first is “Subsidized Theft” by Craig Sams, which appears in the May/June 2006 issue of Resurgence magazine and is based on the Martin Radcliffe Lecture 2006. The author briefly traces the farming history of his family, from 1842 up to the present:
“Uncle Floyd’s son now farms those 625 acres as part of an expanded total of 1,600 acres—all farmed with just one assistant. Last year he lost $40,000 on sales of $300,000 but ended up with a net farm income of $110,000, thanks to a hefty $150,000 subsidy from the US government. So from Thomas Jefferson’s dream of a rural democracy, where every self-sufficient and prosperous family had a small farm or business, we have reached—in three generations—a corporate state where a viable family farmer needs 1,600 acres, a lot of machinery and GM crops and still operates at a huge annual loss that has to be made up by subsidies.” He then traces the history of subsidies and connects them with corporate giants, “the health of the global economy, the stability of our climate and human health.” And as for subsidies causing world poverty: “US farmers grow maize at a cost of 6 cents per pound. A Mexican farmer can grow maize at a cost of 4 cents per pound. … But the world market price is set at 3 cents per pound on the Chicago Board of Trade on the basis of subsidized US farmers. … In the cruel world of subsidized agriculture, the so-called inefficient Mexican farmers go out of business trying to compete. … In recent years 100,000 Mexican farmers have been driven off the land, denied access to their domestic market by US imports.”

The second article is “Going Local on a Global Scale” by Kirsten Schwind, which appears in Just Change (Bonnie Flaws, editor,; Although its focus is on food, connections are made between globalized food and climate change, energy use, rural poverty, and the erosion of health, diversity and cultural heritage. The article sums up by saying: “The successes of a cornucopia of community food programs have already demonstrated how local food can foster robust local development, improve food security and nutrition, build community, and support productive family farms. Going local can also be a part of the answer to reversing global environmental degradation and greatly reducing rural poverty.”

• The May 2006 issue of Vanity Fair has an article, “While Washington Slept,” by Mark Hertsgaard. The long text includes Queen Elizabeth’s concerns about global warming, a detailed background of the US’s downplay of the issue, a hard look at possible consequences of continued melting of the Greenland icesheet as well as its counterpart in Antartica, and some possible changes that need to be made (although the general tone is that we have waited so long to start that we cannot avoid climate change). By far the most impressive part of the article is the computer-generated photos and maps of how some of our better-known coastal cities might look with rises in the sea level ranging from 3 to 80 feet.

• This is from apprentice Margo Royer-Miller: “Until October of 2004, all I knew about peat was that it is in a lot of commercial potting soils and it is used as a fuel. My twin sister was volunteering in Northern Ireland, so we visited her and traveled around the island. One of our stops was a peat bog. Not only was it a beautiful place, but they had a terrific education center there also. I learned about the ecological and environmental consequences of peat extraction and burning, things I had not considered before.

“ Remember all the artifacts that had been found in the bog as they extracted bricks. Bogs are rich with cultural history, because they take thousands of years to form. It is a unique ecosystem that is disappearing quickly as we extract the peat much faster than it is replenished. In some countries, all peat bogs have been eliminated (Poland and the Netherlands). There are a lot of rare and endangered species that live in the bogs. At the museum we went through they had pictures and placards of many insects and butterflies. I also know that the burning of peat, because of its makeup, releases a lot of carbon dioxide into the air. If you’re interested in learning more, the Irish Peatland Conservation Council has a terrific website, If you click on Facts and Information there are some terrific factsheets.”



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