As farming methods have evolved in the age of industrialization, we’ve moved away from community-based farming in which small, diverse farms supported local needs. As yields have increased, our ability to feed a global population has increased. But, ironically, in connecting crops to a broader audience, we’ve lost our community. As the dominant farming method has transitioned from polycultural farming of many plants to monocultural farming of single crops, so, too, the typical “farmer” has evolved from central pillar of the community to a farm corporation focused on commodity crops and maximizing profit for its own benefit.
What is agricultural monoculture and monocropping?
Monoculture describes a type of farming in which a single crop is grown over large tracts of land. Agricultural monoculture describes farming practice in which a single crop dominates a large tract of land. It is often referred to as intensive farming practice. Monoculture is where you might drive for 10 miles and see nothing but corn. Polyculture, on the other hand, describes different types of crops growing alongside each other. Think of polyculture as a typical garden: you might have tomatoes growing next to beans.
If there is a single crop covering a large area, that is called monocultural farming. If there are multiple crops growing alongside each other, as we see in traditional small farming, that is called polyculture. Good examples of monocultural farming include food crops experiencing high global demand, and which can be easily harvested with large equipment: like corn, soybeans, and wheat.
Monoculture, or its opposite, polyculture, refer to the use of land at a point in time. The latter, naturally, has a higher level of biodiversity. Monocultural farming reduces biodiversity but increases commercial efficiency of the farm (it makes more profit), but is associated with lesser ecosystem health, due to typically higher use of chemical pesticides (polycultural farming can take greater advantage of natural pest control).
The term “monocropping”, in contrast, refers to planting the same crop over an area of land over time. “Intercropping” on the other hand, refers to the planting of different crops on the same tract of land over time. So, for example, if I have 100 acres, and I plant corn across all 100 acres, removing hedgerows or other plants, that represents a monoculture. If I harvest and then re-plant corn over that same 100 acres repeatedly, without planting other crops in between corn harvests, that is monocropping.
Monoculture and monocropping have commercial benefits – they allow for the reuse of seeds and equipment to make harvesting efficient. They allow for mechanized planting and harvesting, increasing crop yields.
They typically require a higher use of chemicals to aid crop productivity, due to the loss of natural soil enhancements and pest control that one would find in appropriately managed polycultural and intercropping based farming.
Why is biodiversity important?
Scientific evidence is mounting that industrial agricultural practices over the last 50-60 years are having a dramatic impact on the ecosystems in which farms operate. Significant losses are mounting in wildlife populations – insect and bird populations, for example, have fallen dramatically.
There is evidence that the depletion of natural resources – in the soil, in the air, and in the water – is already impacting crop yields negatively. The dramatic gains we achieved through the industrialization process, it turns out, are unstable. There is scientific evidence to suggest that while the industrialization process brought immense gains to crop productivity, those gains are not sustainable. Unless we continue to evolve our farming methods, we will see reductions in crop productivity.
Why did monoculture take off?
Industrial monoculture-based farming benefits from economies of scale. This type of farming is more economically efficient primarily because machinery can be deployed to support planting and harvesting. Machinery, however, is specific to the crop being planted or harvested. In order to justify the investment in a combine harvester, you have to farm a lot of oats, soybean, rye or wheat – the crops that can be harvested with that type of machine.
You can’t harvest strawberries with machinery of this type, for example, unless you are trying to make a seriously large smoothie. So, the outcome of investing in a combine harvester is typically coupled with large fields of a single crop that can be harvested mechanically.
Some crops benefit from being planted as a single crop over a large area: cereals like wheat, rice, corn, barley and oats are good examples. Corn, for example, requires a minimum set of rows in order to effectively pollinate. A plot of corn needs a minimum of 1.2 meters long and 4 rows wide to ensure you get full ears of corn.
With less than this, it is more likely that the ears will not fully develop with kernels from top to bottom. Instead, ears will be bald in patches, or at one end. Certainly, though, that minimum requirement for corn does not require monocultural planting to be effective. In fact, over time, monoculture can have negative impacts on the soil and plants themselves – like increasing reliance on pesticides.
Let’s face it, pesticides were introduced for a reason. They are extremely effective at increasing crop yields. It is not a coincidence that during the time that the use of pesticides has increased (between the 1960s and today), the average crop yield has also doubled for key crops, like corn and wheat. This is no doubt a result of pesticide use and the increasing use and introduction of new machinery and equipment. Removing pesticide use from all farming and reducing the effectiveness of machinery would cause prices to skyrocket and people to go hungry.
Monocultural practices can provide a much higher crop yield by allowing for mechanization, which can feed a much larger population. This is not to be overlooked – feeding large populations is really important. However, the damage to the ecosystem can be devastating under certain conditions, and there is mounting evidence that the increased crop yields achieved through monoculture are not sustainable. So, as is usually the case, monocultural farming was introduced to achieve higher efficiency, but we are finding over time that there are unintended negative consequences of that practice.
Negative effects of monoculture and monocropping
The side effects of industrial processes in agriculture are making it harder to sustain crop yields. We are learning that large scale monocropping practices are depleting the soil and reducing yields. Scientific study is early in this area, but initial experiments have shown that increasing diversity in crops can increase yields. For example, Professor Christian Schöb has found that increasing diversity in crops increased yields by as much as 44%.
Crops absorb nutrients from the soil. When a single crop is farmed over a large track of land, all of those plants are absorbing the same nutrients. When the same crop is farmed over and over again on that land, over a period of harvest cycles, the soil is depleted of the nutrients that single crop requires to thrive.
In traditional farming, plants would be sequenced to preserve soil health. For example, traditionally in Indigenous American farming, beans, corn and squash would be planted together. They are known as the three sisters. The sweetcorn supports the beans as they grow. The beans fix nitrogen for the sweetcorn, and the squash provides for the soil, retaining water and preventing weed growth. This is an example of a lovely natural relationship between plants in a polyculture.
However, when a farmer plants just corn over 100 acres, there is a greater likelihood that farmer will need to put fertilizer into the soil to provide nitrogen to the corn, and spray pesticides on the ground to prevent weed growth. In doing so, the delicate ecosystem of the soil is disrupted. Over time, when monoculture and monocropping persist, we find that crop yields go down, and chemical amendments to the soil go up.
As well, monocropping, in most cases, encourages pest resistance to chemicals by providing ideal conditions for pest evolution. When pests attracted to a single crop are exposed to chemicals repeatedly over a short space of time, the strongest pests who survive chemical treatments then win in the evolution game, reducing the amount of time required for pests to grow immune to chemical interventions and requiring ever more deadly pesticides to be used.
The use of herbicides and chemical amendments is also having unintended consequences for the delicate ecosystems that were previously abundant in the soil and in the air. Chemical pesticides don’t just kill pests. They also significantly impact the populations of pollinators and other creatures who are critical to maintaining soil health and plant lifecycles.
Worms, insects, and birds are all important players in the plant lifecycle. They are required for effective pollination of plants, with insects accounting for roughly 88% of all animal pollinated plants worldwide. And, different animals and insects are responsible for pollinating different plants.
There are likely millions of these sorts of relationships that exist in the natural world but are not yet documented by the scientific method. For instance, the scientific community have only recently documented that Asters and Goldenrods grow together for a reason – the combination of purple and yellow flowers is more efficient at attracting pollinators than purple or yellow alone. So, when these flowers grow together, they are more successful.
We are finding that the scientific community has previously underestimated, or, at a minimum, failed to document, the interconnectedness of plant and pollinator systems. Because we do not appropriately consider these relationships when evolving our farm practices, our interventions are having unintended consequences on processes we took for granted, like pollination.
Pollination is important to the plant lifecycle. Pollination ensures that crops are able to reproduce, providing us with the edible parts of the plant – fruit, roots, leaves, etc. When pollination is not successful, plant yields drop. If pollination fell to zero, crop yields could also fall to zero (but how crops would evolve over time is a matter of predictive analytics and unknown). In the short term, we have seen situations where laborers have had to intervene and help the pollination process along, in order to preserve crop yields as a result of declining pollinator populations.
Using human labor to pollinate plants is inefficient to say the least. While it is a stop gap that may help preserve some crop yields, it does not constitute a sustainable replacement for the wildlife that is specifically evolved to pollinate various plants. Equally, the scientific community are finding very specific relationships between plants and animals that will be hard to replicate with even the most sophisticated technologies.
What can you do about it?
Polycultural and intercropping farmers are more likely to care for the soil by rotating crops, providing space for wildflowers that attract pollinators, and pursuing biodiversity. Because they reduce the efficiency of machinery, reduce the amount of land that can be dedicated to the single crop, require more seed purchases, and often require more planning, polyculture and intercropping tends to be a more expensive type of farming.
It is for this reason that consumers need to recognize the shortcomings of market forces. Commercial markets exert pressure on costs and prices, providing incentives to maximize crop yields in the short-term while minimizing input costs. However, we assign no commercial value to soil health, pollinator populations, or future crop yields. We are therefore at risk of sacrificing our future for our present.
The best thing we, as individual consumers, can do is to vote with our money. Every purchase of responsibly farmed produce increases the demand for this type of farming. I realize this may not be possible for many consumers, as budgets are tight, but wherever possible, choose organic produce when it is available.
The other thing we can do is to pressure governments to enact policies that do assign commercial value to the health of the soil and the pollinators that depend upon it. By supporting responsible farming, and requiring that industrial farms contribute to the repair and rebuilding of soil and pollinator populations, we can encourage the transition to a more sustainable future.
There is now a focus amongst scientific researchers in the field to try and work out the best way to reduce pesticide use while preserving yields. But, this will not happen overnight. The market will need to transition from today’s production methods, which have been successful in feeding a much larger global population than previously possible, and the production methods of tomorrow that will need to keep up with population growth, reduce hunger, but without compromising the earth.
Photo by meriç tuna on Unsplash