Rosa’s expression falls suddenly when I ask. “There was no food. All the markets were closed. There was nothing.” We stand on the roof of an urban garden, examining the growth of tiny seedlings. She tells me how her friends became so emaciated that she no longer recognized their faces. “I didn’t know how to grow things. I just knew I had to eat.” Rosa explains how sheer hunger compelled her to make soil from heaps of leaves and stone, and she began keeping chickens on the balcony of her third floor apartment.
At first, this seems like the makings of a post-apocalyptic science fiction film in which even basic necessities like food and water are scarce. But, this is not a galaxy far, far away. Rosa’s story is a snapshot of what we can learn from history.
Cuba, 1991. A newscaster announces the collapse of the Soviet Union. The most immediate impact was the loss of nearly all of the oil imports by the former USSR. Almost overnight, Cuba lost 90 percent of its oil, leaving its transportation and agricultural systems paralyzed.
However, Cuba survived the crisis by creating small farms, encouraging urban agriculture and shifting from machine to manual labor. Abandoning the machinery method of industrial agricultural, Cubans used human and animal labor and replaced chemical fertilizers with organic farming techniques that used more labor but fewer fossil fuels.
Before the oil crisis, excessive use of chemical-based fertilizers and pesticides had de-mineralized the soil. Nitrogen fertilizers had insidiously depleted the health of the soil. Today, practices like crop rotation and planting mixed crops on a single plot have replenished the soil, with 80 percent of Cuba’s produce now organically grown.
The Special Period in Cuba gives a terrifying look into the future of peak oil for the United States. Rosa faced hunger caused by the breakdown of an agriculture system built on cheap oil and political events in a foreign country thousands of miles away.
And like Cuba pre-crisis, the United States relies on imports of fruits and vegetables, fossil fuels and commercial fertilizers from all over the world. The price of oil dictates the price of food. The peaking of oil production is eminent. Geologist Walter Youngquist, author of GeoDestinies: The Inevitible Control of the Earth’s Resources, notes that in 2004, the world produced 30.5 billion barrels of oil but discovered only 7.5 billion barrels of new oil. If we do not transform an agricultural system reliant on fossil fuels, the future may repeat itself in manmade global famines that mirror the turmoil of the Special Period in Cuba.
Rosa holds up a baby tomato from one of the small plants, “Not quite ripe,” she decides. “We still have time.”