Many of today’s ecological problems can be understood through farm practice change. I don’t believe that human food chains have only recently challenged nature – early agriculture and long before that human hunting proved enormously destructive. In fact, it was the overexploitation of nature during the Stone Age that prompted our ancestors need for agriculture.
Early generations of hunters eliminated locally the species they depended on for food. Since those times, I believe the most destructive practice has been the assertion of monoculture. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when and why monoculture farming began, perhaps simplicity is what lead early farmers to pursue the strategy. One field, one seed sowing, one harvest. It is far easier to appreciate why monoculture has remained pervasive, despite its inadequacies being well known;
the industrial food corporates have organised their businesses around the automation of monocultures and they are either unable or unwilling to see this paradigm shift.
In the vast cornfields of Iowa, endless, homogenous rows of genetically identical corn plants grow. These plants are the product of biotechnology’s research efforts to develop the perfect, high yielding, corn plant. This is the socialist utopia of corn, all members receive exactly the same quality of life, no neighbour shades another, being clones they all grow at exactly the same rate.
There is something distinctly unnatural about this system, nature never developed monocultures with good reason. Biological systems rely on interaction between a great many species, large and small, to function resiliently. The Earth has now entered the Anthropocene, the epoch of man. The survival of species is more dependent on their relationship with humans than almost anything else.
Humanity’s staple crops like corn, wheat and soybeans have been big winners, but their success has come at the expense of monumentally more species.
Inadequacies of monoculture
Reduced ecosystem depth
Wild systems have vastly more participating species than monocultures. A diverse plant population supports a deeper web of insects. Some of these insects will be considered pests, while others are seen as beneficial. Complexity ensures no single population comes to dominate. This reality also applies to the realms of microorganisms and bacteria. Additionally, greater soil stability is achieved in areas with different plants as their roots grow to different depths.
Increased agrochemical usage
To protect crops without a functioning ecosystem requires synthetic herbicides, insecticides, bactericides and fertilisers. Even organic farms make use of similar industrially produced materials, they just need to be drawn from an approved list. The consequences of using these synthetic materials are:
- unknown health consequences when consumed by humans
- groundwater pollution
- pollution of waterways and eventually oceans
- oxygen deprivation in water bodies due to increased algae
- greenhouse gas emissions during production
The adaptability and resilience of nature means these inorganic methods have a limited lifetime of effectiveness. New chemicals are continually developed which reap havoc on and off the farm.
Lack of ground cover plants exposes the soil to wind and rain, causing topsoil loss. We have already degraded much of the world’s agricultural land.
There is no substitute for soil, fertile soil is the ultimate resource. It cannot be distilled or cleaned like water and air.
Historic civilisations fell due to soil degradation. The slow timescale of degradation means soil fertility is often never the crisis du jour. Once agricultural land has been degraded, forests are often cleared to obtain new fertile lands, this is a destructive pattern of behaviour.
High water usage
Not only is a lack of ground cover plants negative from a soil perspective, it makes monocultures wasteful of water. During a drought, water is lost more quickly by evaporation and during heavy rain, surface runoff is exacerbated. Supplementary water must be obtained from elsewhere impacting the world beyond the farm.
Fossil fuel consumption
The industrial food machine is a great consumer of fossil fuels, the emissions from its various parts; planters, sprayers, harvesters, packers and transporters all contribute to climate change. This is an energy intensive method of food production sometimes 10 calories from fossil fuels are burned to deliver 1 calorie of food onto a consumers plate. We are eating oil.
Monoculture was never parts of nature’s development which is why such crude practices are required to assert it.