The term monoculture in agriculture refers to the growing of a single crop over a large area. Monoculture is the norm in most large-scale commercial agriculture in the U.S. and in many parts of the world. Monoculture has certain short-term benefits, primarily in terms of economy of scale, and automation of the production process (and thus reduction of labor costs). However, in the long-term, the disadvantages of monoculture are overwhelming – this farming method has numerous negative effects on the environment, and furthermore, these negative effects tend to become amplified over the long-run. This article weighs the pros and cons of this sort of uniform approach to agriculture, and points to some alternative practices that are more sustainable, both environmentally and economically, and thus superior on all counts in the long-run.
Pros and cons of monoculture farming: what are its advantages?
It is immediately evident that I am not a fan of or advocate for monoculture. But there are some direct and strongly compelling reasons that people engage in this destructive practice. Before we talk about why this practice is so harmful, I find it fruitful to first examine its benefits or advantages.
The main advantage is economy of scale, primarily through automation. Especially in the U.S., labor costs are very high, so anything that can reduce the use of labor in agriculture is highly likely to result in cost savings. This is often true even when the automation reduces yield per acre. For example, if a crop has been grown, it can often be harvested in different ways, with different levels of automation. Greater automation in harvesting might result in greater waste, such as grain left in the fields, but if it requires less labor (such as one person driving a large machine which covers the ground very quickly, as opposed to several people driving smaller, slower machines, or many people harvesting the crop by hand) it may be superior in a cost-benefit analysis, even if it results in greater waste.
Disadvantages of monoculture farming:
The most compelling disadvantage of monoculture farming is that it is not adaptable. Wild ecosystems are diverse, and wild populations of plants and animals are also diverse. An ecosystem contains numerous different species, each with unique adaptations to its environment, and distinct strengths and weaknesses in response to changing conditions. Similarly, the natural population of a plant or animal species has genetic variability, and each individual plant or animal has slightly different traits. Furthermore, each population, and the ecosystem as a whole, is constantly changing, adapting to the changing environmental conditions and the conditions imposed by the other populations and species in the system.
Monoculture smooths out this variability, destroying the diversity and replacing it with, at best, a single species, and at worst (as is the norm in the U.S.), a single cultivar – rows and rows of genetically identical crops, essentially cloned, reproduced through cuttings or genetically engineered seed stock.
Susceptibility to pests:
The ecological landscape of monoculture is that there is a massive range of genetically identical plants, against a backdrop of wild pests, which include fungi, bacteria, insects, and numerous other organisms. These pests each have a wild population with its own biodiversity, and their populations are constantly changing and adapting to being able to eat the crops or benefit from the presence of whatever crops are being grown. The monoculture crops, however, are not.changing, and are not able to adapt because they have no genetic variability and are not allowed to reproduce naturally. Plant pests, weeds, also adapt, seeding into the fields of crops, taking advantage of the extra sunlight, as most monoculture crops let through ample light and are not making full use of the sun’s energy.
The only way to control pests in this setup is to expend ever-greater energy and resources on chemical control, either through the spraying of pesticides, fungicides, or bactericides on crops, or through the genetic engineering of crops to enable them to produce these chemicals themselves. But without the natural adaptation, pests will eventually evolve to resist any of these defenses. The setup of monoculture is inherently doomed, as it is working against the natural ways in which ecosystems work. It is completely unsustainable in the long-run.
Negative environmental impacts of monoculture:
Because monoculture farming requires ever-increasing levels of chemical inputs, the negative impacts on the environment are also continuously increasing. Although people often prefer to use safer chemicals when they exist, and use them in as low a concentration as possible, any safe chemical will necessarily eventually stop working. Many of the chemicals used in commercial agriculture are known to be toxic and/or carcinogenic, or have other negative impacts on humans. But even chemicals that are safe for human consumption or exposure can have negative impacts on the environment; for example, roundup, a widely used herbicide, is much more toxic to amphibians than it is to humans.
Other negative effects of monoculture:
Besides the negative environmental effects, monoculture also destroys our culture. Monoculture and large-scale factory farming is in large part responsible for or associated with the alienation of Americans from the practice of farming, and the move from an economy in which a large portion of people were directly involved in farming towards a society in which people see food as an industrial product to be purchased in a store, with little idea of where it comes from.
Beyond monoculture: how you can help protect the environment and food and farming culture:
The empire of factory farming and wide-scale monoculture is thankfully crumbling. You can do your part by learning more about gardening, by experimenting with growing some of your own food, even if you just have a small city yard, or even growing some indoors or on a porch or balcony if you do not have a yard. You can also explore farmer’s markets with locally grown food, and encourage small-scale, local production, by diversified farming methods, by using your money to support these farmers. As we return to diversified agriculture, we will become more connected to our food, and help protect our environment as well.