Monocultures: you’ve probably seen them. They account for the majority of those squares you see on the ground when flying in an airplane. But monocultures are more than agricultural art: they are the crux of agricultural production in the United States. Interestingly enough, though, they could simultaneously prove to be the downfall of the agricultural system as we know it.
So, what exactly is a monoculture, and how can these neatly trimmed squares you wonder about in the air have such an impact on the surrounding environment? Well, monoculture refers to the massive, cultivation of a single crop in a designated area. We’re talking acres and acres of growing and harvesting one crop for years and years – monocultures make up 442 million acres of land in the United States.
There are some advantages to the system of agricultural production using monocultures, namely convenience. By planting monocultures, the planting, watering, harvesting, and – if you’ve read my other articles, you probably knew this was coming – pest management of the agriculture can be standardized and completed in a significantly shorter amount of time.
The advantages of monocultures seem pretty legitimate, and in many ways have revolutionized agricultural production. Key word: seem. Upon further investigation, the results of agricultural monocultures are actually quite harmful to the environment.
Here are 5 ways monocultures are destroying the environment:
- Monocultures destroy the soil. By planting the same plant in the same soil for years, the soil becomes more depleted over time. This in itself would be an issue – as it would lead to the production of lower quality plants. But, that doesn’t happen, because we have fertilizer and other chemicals that can (synthetically) restore the quality of the soil. Sort of. With monocultures being so popular, we end up using A LOT (that’s a number) of fertilizer that actually pollutes the air and surrounding water sources.
- Monocultures eliminate biodiversity (which indirectly increases the need for pesticides). When a system is in place that discourages or eliminates biodiversity, two things happen: one, there is no organic pest management – different species of insects cannot create natural population control of themselves or other insects – which leads to the second problem: because there is no natural aid in pest management, more pesticides are needed in order to control the pest populations.
- Monocultures promote pest infestation. Because monocultures are acres of the same plant, the entire monoculture attracts the same types of pests. Because there is no biodiversity to mitigate these effects, and because the pests can so easily obtain food and multiply, the pests can infest an entire monoculture. In order to deal with the infestations, even more pesticides are used.
- Plant disease is easier to spread. Plant disease is easier to spread in a monoculture because all the crops in a monoculture are the same, making it very difficult to stop disease once it has spread. How do we stop the spread of these diseases? That’s right, more pesticides.
- The influx of pesticides and chemical fertilizers that are used to maintain monocultures are incredibly harmful to pollinators, as I’ve talked about here. When bees and other pollinators are exposed to pesticides, especially neonic pesticides, they become more susceptible to other environmental stressors to which they are normally immune. Further, the decrease in pollinator populations caused by neonic pesticides means that there is a decrease in pollination, which can ultimately lead to a shift in agricultural variety and economic balance (Economically, pollinators are responsible for over $150 billion globally in agriculture, with over 70% of food sources in the United States dependent on pollinators1. Further, the disruption of ecosystemic balance caused by the decrease of pollinators affects issues like biodiversity and disrupts the food chain.
A move away from monocultures could in part drastically reduce the need for pesticides in the first place. The lack of crop rotation and thus nutrients in the soil poses its own set of problems that are cause to move away from monoculture agriculture as well. Agriculture is just that – a culture. It is not a piecemeal existence that can be understood without the other components (both in terms of thriving and possible demise): “Part of the instability and susceptibility to pests of agroecosystems can be linked to the adoption of vast crop monocultures, which have concentrated resources for specialist crop herbivores and have increased the areas available for immigration of pests. This simplification has also reduced environmental opportunities for natural enemies. Consequently, pest outbreaks often occur when large numbers of immigrant pests, inhibited populations of beneficial insects, favorable weather and vulnerable crop stages happen simultaneously.”2
The movement against pesticides should be accompanied by a movement away from destructive monocultures that require the increased use of pesticides, decreasing not only the use of, but the need for, systemic pesticides. This movement should also include a proclivity toward organic farming practices and an interest in devoting resources toward long term solutions for pest management that complement the ecosystems, rather than destroy them.
1. Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott Spoolman. Sustaining the Earth. 11th ed. N.p.: Cengage Learning, 2013. 97.
2. Altieri, M.A. and P.M. Rosset 1995. Agroecology and the conversion of large-scale conventional systems to sustainable management. International Journal of Environmental Studies 50: 165-185.