I recently came across a book called Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture by Dale Allen Pfeiffer. In his book, Pfeiffer uses the North Korean famine in the mid-nineties as a cautionary tale about what can happen to a nation’s food production when that nation runs low on fuel.
Fossil Fuels Fuel Food Production
The basic thesis is as follows: Food production relies on fossil fuels to transport raw materials to the farm, to distribute products to global markets, to plant and reap crops via agricultural machinery, and to enhance crop yields via fertilizer (the nitrogen-based variety of which requires natural gas to produce). Without fuel, farm productivity declines–precisely what happened in North Korea.
Soviet Collapse Linked to North Korean Famine
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early nineties, North Korea’s access to imported fuel from the U.S.S.R. went away almost overnight. The state no longer had ready access to fuel, fertilizer, or agricultural machinery. According to North Korea’s own tally, 2.5 to 3 million people died in the subsequent famine from 1995 to March 1998.
While the North Korean government bears much of the blame for diverting fossil fuel resources from the fields to the military, the data tells a compelling story about how dangerously reliant our modern food production system is on fossil fuels.
Fuel Deficits Can Lead to Famine
Pfeiffer’s book included one chart plotting petroleum consumption with agricultural production, which showed a strong relationship between the two variables. Pfeiffer’s chart was so compelling that I decided to plot several data points on North Korean fuel consumption and food production using the World Bank’s development indicators.
Tractor Inventory Started its Fall with the Berlin Wall
From 1962 to 1987, North Korea increased its tractor inventory. In 1988, the number of tractors stood at 70,000. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, from 1989 to 2007, the number of tractors in North Korea’s inventory declined at an average annual rate of 0.5 percent. North Korea’s tractors were getting old, but the state could not replace them. Subsequently, the government had fewer resources to apply towards food production.
Fossil Fuel Consumption Declined After Fall of Berlin Wall
North Korean fossil fuel consumption declined at an average annual rate of 3.3 percent from 1989 to 2007. From 1992 to 1995, it declined by nearly 10 percent per year. During the same period, cereal yield also declined by an average rate of over 15 percent per annum.
Rapid Decline in Fertilizer Use Led to Sharp Drop in Yield
Of all the effects on North Korea’s cereal yield, the decline in fertilizer consumption appears to have had the most dramatic effect. In 1994, a 67.7 percent decline in fertilizer consumption was associated with a 46.7 percent decline in yield.
Fossil Fuel Starvation Leads to Human Starvation
The effect of these lower crop yields was a decline in the population’s growth rate. Since the famine of the mid-nineties, North Korea’s growth rate has never recovered. Granted, most countries are not as isolated or poorly managed as North Korea, but they can still learn from the North Korean experience. Modern food production requires fossil fuels to function. If societies continue to ignore this link and do not seek out ways to start decoupling fossil fuels from food production, they will continue to be at risk from the instability associated with high fossil fuel prices.