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.
The industrial food chain takes food on a journey of several thousand miles, originating in gigantic monocultures, produce passes onto far-flung food processors and packing factories before ending up on your plate. It has become an unfortunate norm that food travels thousands of miles prior to consumption.
Truly sustainable design requires understanding a product’s entire lifecycle. Sustainable food requires more than just responsible agricultural techniques – the entire length of the food chain needs to be considered.
Relearning the seasons
These modern supply chains have created a year round supply of most produce, something nature never intended. We have forgotten the bright colours of each season. We all once knew these by heart but for local food chains to succeed people must relearn what it means to eat according to the seasons. There is an informal alliance of small farmers and local chefs who are driving the re-education of consumers. Chefs have been instrumental in leading a movement to save local agriculture and share the pleasures of eating by the season. The best restaurants now showcase the superior qualities of fresh food grown with care and without chemicals.
The multidisciplinary nature of the local food chain makes it a movement, not merely a market. The decision to buy from a local farmer rather than from Tesco is a civic act, a form of protest to opt out of the supermarket and globalised industrial agricultural system. Buying from local farmers is more than just a consumer choice, it is a political decision. Reversing the damage done to local economies and the land by the juggernaut of Big Food requires a revolt by local small producers and consumers against the global industrial machine. It is difficult to pass up the convenience of the supermarket, but every purchase we substitute to local producers is a step in the right direction.
A global food rebellion
The start of this rebellion is the growing demand for food from local producers, known and trusted by consumers. A global, totalitarian diet poses a threat to the distinctiveness of local cultures and identities. The survival of local landscapes and biodiversity was the reason a French anti-globalisation activist, and farmer, drove his tractor through the glass, not of a bank or an insurance company, but a McDonald’s.
The most powerful protests against globalisation to date have centred around food. Protests against seed patents in India have brought 400,000 Indians into the street. The globalisation of food that treats it as a commodity has created a system dominated by the iron law of competitive advantage. If other countries can grow a product with cheaper land, labour or environmental laws, why grow it here? People crave the sense of security that comes from knowing: your community and country can feed itself.
David and Goliath
Local agriculture preserves practical local knowledge, farmers bring a community, satisfaction. The promise of global capitalism, much like the promise of communism before, demands faith that the destruction of things now will help achieve a greater happiness and prosperity in the future. To a degree communism was founded on the issue of food. The Soviets sacrificed millions of small farms and farmers to the dream of a collectivised industrial agriculture. At the Soviet Union’s collapse more than half of the food consumed in the Soviet Union was being produced by small farmers and home gardeners operating without official sanction.
Today’s centralised industrial food system hasn’t satisfied people’s consciousness, so they have sought out independent farmers markets. The problems with our food system, unlike the Soviet’s, is that it produces too much food at too great an environmental cost. Everyday we participate in this battle; we can reject the industrial machine’s offerings and choose local. This is not to say that local farmers cannot commit ecological malpractice, they can, but there is a level of transparency and accountability at the local level that cannot manifest at the industrial level.
Buying and selling locally also tends producers toward polyculture, as they cannot sell vast volumes of the same crop, this helps to diversify landscapes away from destructive monocultures. Well designed polycultures maintain fertility and reduce disease prevalence, reducing demand for chemical pesticides.
Find, prepare, preserve
“Eat your view” is a concept of active conservation probably more effective and sustainable than writing cheques to environmental organisations. Participating in a local food economy requires considerably more effort than shopping at the supermarket – one will have to become reacquainted with seasonal cooking. The industrial food chain offers the convenience for busy people a way to delegate their cooking and food preservation to others. This food system has, over the past half-century, transformed not just our landscapes, but our diets. Our knowledge of how to navigate the seasons using local produce has been eroded. Finding, preparing and preserving food is one of the pleasures of life, the machine would rather we crave the Big Mac. A change of approach to focus on the survival of landscapes, species and traditional food connoisseurship is the most pleasurable thing we can do.