You’ve undoubtedly driven past farmer’s fields at some point in your life. All of those seemingly endless, waving fields of golden wheat or tall stalks of corn were absolutely beautiful, weren’t they?
Unfortunately, those crops aren’t anywhere near as beautiful as you’d think for the environment. They’re perfect examples of monoculture, and the side effects of how they’ve been grown have altered life on this planet forever.
What Is Monoculture?
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Let’s break this word down into its two parts: “mono” meaning “one”, and “culture”, as in cultivation. As such, “monoculture” is the practice of cultivating one single crop or plant species in a particular area.
A perfect example of monoculture would be a well-groomed grassy lawn. This is utterly devoid of herbs, flowers, or other so-called “weeds.” In fact, the only thing that grows there is a particular grass species.
Other examples include the aforementioned wheat or corn. These monochromatic farm fields are full of one crop or another, with nothing else growing in between. There is the wheat field, the carrot field, the lettuce field, etc.
This type of monocropping is efficient as far as industrial harvesting goes. After all, a modern tractor can be programmed to trim off all the wheat or pull up all the beets in a single go. Unfortunately, monoculture’s detriments far outweigh its benefits.
Why is Monoculture Bad?
There are a number of different reasons why monoculture is a bad idea, but the primary one is soil depletion.
Imagine a person who’s experienced a great deal of blood loss, or is calcium depleted from feeding children with their own body. If their iron and calcium levels aren’t replenished, they’ll be working at a deficit. As such, they’ll suffer from anemia and osteoporosis, among other health issues.
Now imagine what will happen if they keep getting depleted over and over again without adequate replenishment.
Sure, they might eat a steak or a bit of cheese here and there, but that won’t replenish the stores they had before they were depleted. It really only replenishes what they’re currently using and doesn’t replenish the deficit.
If that continues, their health issues will intensify until they finally keel over. The same thing happens with soil depletion. Think of the dust bowl of the Great Depression and you have the right idea.
1. Soil Depletion Affects Crop Health
Take a crop like cabbage, which requires a great deal of nitrogen to grow well. A large cabbage crop will deplete the soil of nitrogen rather significantly. In order to grow another healthy crop, that soil will have to be amended by replenishing its nitrogen stores.
Ideally, this is where crop rotation and fallow field practices would come into effect. After a crop of heavy-feeding nitrogen goblins is grown, the next crop would be full of nitrogen fixers.
For example, that field of cabbages should be followed by a huge crop of field peas. Alternatively, some people sow a green mulch like red clover, which replenishes the nitrogen. That field isn’t used to grow food that year. It’s sown with replenishing plants and nourished with compost.
With monoculture farming, however, that kind of holistic replenishment doesn’t happen.
Instead, the field is planted with the same crop, over and over again, without a rest period. As such, the soil gets more depleted every year, and the plants get smaller, weaker, and more unhealthy.
This is similar to how several children breastfed by depleted mothers will be smaller and sicklier than children fed from a healthy, well-nourished mother’s body.
To combat this, farmers turn to chemical amendments instead of organic ones. The main amendment is chemical fertilizer that force-feeds nutrients into the soil. That doesn’t solve the cabbage health problem, though.
2. Chemical Amendments Affect the Ecosystem
Healthy soil is full of beneficial microbes that nourish and protect the plants growing in it. When soil is depleted, those microbes die off. This leaves the plants vulnerable to more pathogens and predators.
As a result, farmers counteract this depletion by hosing their plants down with pesticides and herbicides. Sure, this helps to reduce predation and weed activity, but wreaks havoc on the surrounding ecosystem (and beyond).
If you release a drop of red dye into a bathtub full of water, it’ll dissipate. In fact, you won’t even notice it was ever there. Add several more drops, and you might see a faint pink tint. Keep adding drops, and the water will eventually turn red.
That same effect happens when chemicals are added to soil.
Healthy soil is teeming with healthy microbes, mycelium, and countless insects. In contrast, chemical-laden soil is devoid of natural life. It has nutrients in it, but it’ll kill off most insect life that comes into contact with it.
Yes, this means that the plants won’t get devoured by cane borers, cutworms, and other predatory insects. But it also means that the soil won’t get aerated by earthworms, and pollinating insects will get poisoned by the very pollen they’re designed to collect.
3. Chemicals Contaminate Water
When you eat food, the nutrients you consume are dispersed throughout your entire body via veins and blood vessels. The same thing happens all over the planet through the water table.
Basically, if you spray a ton of chemicals onto a field, they don’t just stay in the field.
They seep down through the soil into the groundwater and keep moving. Those chemicals are carried into streams and rivers, and out into the ocean. When the water evaporates into mist and travels around the world in cloud form, the chemicals are carried along with them.
They don’t just “disappear.” They’re relocated. The natural peregrination of each water molecule means that the sprays used to hose down crops in Iowa will end up affecting life in the Andes, Himalayas, Tasmania, etc.
What This Means for Life on Earth
The result of 80-plus years of chemical pesticide and herbicide use in industrial agriculture is that rainwater is no longer safe to drink. Think about that for a moment. Even in the most remote areas of the planet, the rain that falls is too laden with chemicals to be safe for human or animal consumption.
The fruits and vegetables we consume are, on average, 60-90% water. If you eat animal protein, you know there’s water in their tissues as well. Humans need to consume a minimum of 32 ounces of water daily to survive. In fact, all life on earth requires water just to keep on existing.
Sure, some species can go years without water by lying dormant, but they will eventually die without it. But now, every single life form on the planet is affected by the chemicals in the very water that keeps them alive.
Remember that life feeds on life as well. The insects poisoned by herbicides and pesticides will in turn be eaten by snakes, frogs, birds, and small rodents. In turn, those animals will be preyed upon by hawks, owls, foxes, etc.
They may also be eaten by domestic pets like dogs and cats. Your beloved fluffy friend might die because they’ve dared to eat a mouse that fed from a local farmer’s field.
Now consider that everything you eat and drink is affected by these chemicals.
The Legacy Monoculture is Leaving
Marine biologist and eco-conservationist Rachel Carson foretold all of this 60 years ago in her book Silent Spring. In it, she discussed the long-reaching effects that the herbicides and pesticides used in monoculture farming would have.
The loss of biodiversity alone is enough to be seriously alarming. That said, there are so many other negative side effects that it’s apparent that we need to adapt farming methods to a healthier, more holistic approach for the sake of all life on the planet.
This includes switching from monoculture to polyculture and utilizing techniques such as companion planting to combat pests and predation.
Truly, the only benefit of monoculture farming is that it’s more convenient to harvest. Is that convenience worth poisoning all life on Earth forever?
If you want to avoid the problems associated with monoculture, rip out your lawn and replace it with wildflowers. Plant many different crops in your gardens and rotate regularly. Be sure to use nitrogen-fixing plants and cover crops to keep your soil healthy and reduce the dependence on chemicals.
The more native and local plants you can use in your garden, the better. And when you’re faced with pests and diseases, try to find natural remedies.
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- Ian T. Cousins, Jana H. Johansson, Matthew E. Salter, Bo Sha, and Martin Scheringer. Outside the Safe Operating Space of a New Planetary Boundary for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). Environmental Science & Technology. 2022Aug, 56 (16), 11172-11179 DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.2c02765
- Yahya MS, Syafiq M, Ashton-Butt A, Ghazali A, Asmah S, Azhar B. Switching from monoculture to polyculture farming benefits birds in oil palm production landscapes: Evidence from mist-netting data. Ecol Evol. 2017 Jul 5;7(16):6314-6325. doi: 10.1002/ece3.3205. PMID: 28861235; PMCID: PMC5574735.
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