To many on the right, monoculture -- the growing of single crops over vast acreages -- has been a valuable tool in the agricultural revolution. Monoculture makes it possible to replace expensive labor with efficient mechanization, simplifying farming both in planning and in execution. Along with the development of modern farming machines, inorganic fertilizers, and pesticides, monoculture has resulted in today’s improved conditions of quadrupled yield, drastically reduced costs, and a 75% decrease in the workforce required to produce the nation’s food.
However, many on the left see the benefits of monoculture as either short-term gains that will soon be offset by devastating losses due to its inevitable risks, or simply as illusions created by ignoring the impacts it is already having on human health and the environment. What proponents of monoculture fail to understand, say its critics, is that farming does not take place in a featureless void, isolated from nature. Farmed crops interact with many species in complex networked connections, from pollination to pest predation to microbiological activity in the soil. Nature abhors a vacuum, which is essentially what monoculture creates, and nature is responding as we speak. For example:
The widespread demise of bee colonies (almost certainly due to pesticide use) has called into question the future availability of 70% of the food crops we rely on most.
Soil depletion through leaching of essential minerals requires increasing dependence on petrochemical fertilizers. These in turn contaminate groundwater and may be contributing to increases in such conditions as cancer, diabetes, hormonal and immune-system disorders, and birth defects.
Because monoculture produces huge quantities of single crops, our food supply has become overly simplified as a result. For example, a wide variety of food ingredients have been replaced over the past several decades with corn products -- corn syrup, corn starch, corn protein, corn meal, corn oil, and so on. This reduced diversity in American diets may be fueling some of our most intractable health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
Not only that, say detractors of monoculture practices, but the next great pest epidemic could be just around the corner. The cultivation of large crops of not only a single species but often a single genetic cultivar creates, in the words of Michael Pollan, an “exquisite vulnerability” to pests and diseases. Prominent examples are brought up from the past, such as the Irish potato famine in the 1830s, the Victoria oat blight in the 1940s, and the Southern Corn Leaf Blight in the 1960s. Each of these cases, in this view, shows us that for all its apparent promise, monoculture is not a gift but an accident waiting to happen. To these critics, long-term food security should be a greater priority than short-term profitability.
It is for all of these reasons that many people, especially (but not entirely) on the left, have chosen to “opt out” of large-scale commercial agriculture by buying as much of their food as possible from small, local, usually organic, family farms. The rise of Community Supported Agriculture, for example, is a direct response to the perceived risks and impacts of modern farming practices. The U. S. Department of Agriculture reports (based on data collected in 2012) that there are at least 12,617 American farms using the CSA model. This is a tiny fraction of the 2.2 million farms in the country, however. The vast majority of Americans still get their food from wherever their local grocery store gets it (which is mainly from mega-farms that practice monoculture). For many people, this is a perfectly acceptable state of affairs. If we don’t want to go back to subsistence farming, they say, we should trust the innovative scientists and farmers who have created the abundance we enjoy today. But for many others, the status quo must be challenged if the country, and indeed the entire human race, is to survive and prosper.
There is some confusion about whether the term “monoculture” includes temporal as well as spatial uniformity -- that is, growing the same crop in the same fields year after year. Many who use the term in a derogatory way confuse the two sources of uniformity. In fact, most farmers who grow one crop over large acreages do practice crop rotation, for example planting soybeans one year and corn the next. Some use the terms continuous monoculture or monocropping to denote uniformity in both space and time.
As with many such issues, the devil is in the details, and many people can be found in the spaces between extreme positions. Agricultural researchers point to progress on methods that promise to mitigate the risks of monoculture while preserving its benefits. Work on strip intercropping, a sort of striped monoculture, is ongoing. Options are being explored for changes to tillage practices, enhanced genetic diversity, and improvements to farming machinery (including robotics), all of which have the potential to reduce the dependence of efficient farming systems on monoculture.
QUESTIONS TO PLAY WITH:
- Where does your food come from? Do you know? Do you want to know? Why or why not?
- If we lived in an ideal world, what would we eat? Where would we get our food? Do we live in that ideal world already? If we don’t, what would it take to make that ideal world real?
- If somebody told you that growing all of your own food would cause you to live an extra twenty years, would you drop everything else and do that? How about ten extra years? Five? How much inconvenience would you accept to improve your health? What if somebody told you that you might be healthier if you grew your own food? Would you do it then?
- Which would you rather live next to: a small organic family farm, or a giant mega-farm? Why?