The hush hush damage of monocultures

By Anoush Alexanian

Let’s face it, its been coming up more and more in the news, on TV, in books that advocate food sustainability: monocultures. But what exactly are they? And if they have  been a productive method of farming for 60 years now, why is there so much fuss about them lately in the media?  According to Merriam-Webster, a monoculture is “the cultivation or growth of a single crop or organism especially on agricultural or forest land.”

The  main advantages, as stated by The University of Reading, are as follows:

1) Monocultures produce greater yields on less land because planting and harvesting can be standardized, which in turn results in less waste and boosts efficiency of harvesting and planting.

2) Monocultures have greatly reduced the amount of land needed to produce crops

3) Monocultures have produced a surplus of food to feed our nation, and lowered the cost  these crops.

These statements describe an industry that has evolved to maximize its profits through productivity and efficiency. But what are the hidden costs that we do not see as consumers of such an evolved agricultural system? What are the negative externalities that are not taken into account when ‘efficiency’ is measured?

The question to ask is not whether monocultures work, because looking at  data over the past 60 years proves that it does. What I am asking is how are we measuring efficiency. And whether, in this day and age, with increasing  environmental concerns, is monoculture farming something we want to continue pursuing?

Miguel A. Altieri, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has written an intriguing article about the damaging effects of monocultures in his research. He mentions that from 1941 to 1995, pesticide use has increased from 161 to 212 million pounds – and thats just in California! These increases were not due to increases in acreage, because crop acreage remained constant during that period.

He further explains in detail about the negative consequences: erosion, loss of soil fertility, depletion of nutrient reserves, pollution of water systems, pest resurgence and genetic resistance to pesticides, chemical contamination, and destruction of natural control mechanisms.

Houston Wilson, a graduate student at UC – Berkley and currently the GSI for Dr. Altieri’s class on Agroecology, had much to say about the current state of farming and the development of monocultures. “Unfortunately, monocultures are not what they used to be, and this method is what is deemed efficient in the here and now.”

When asked about the chemicals and fertilizers, Wilson responded by stating that ” we are now experiencing a resistant strain of weeds and pests because of the chemical use. What is even more problematic is that when spraying all the crops with these chemicals, they also kill the beneficial insects, and what is beginning to occur is a secondary pest outbreak.”

The cycle today is being called the pesticide treadmill.

As I found out, there are an astounding number of hidden costs associated with  the massive inputs of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers used in monoculture farming.  Because of the lack of diversity in crops, and the large scale of the farming, monocultures are highly susceptible to pests and soil erosion. These ecological diseases are then treated with intensified chemical controls to overcome such limiting factors.

One of the most frightening facts, which Michael Pollan mentions in his book The Omnivores Dilemma, is how little research has been conducted to evaluate the effects of long term exposure to pesticides. What the government deems ‘tolerable’ in our foods is in fact an assumption that has not really been tested nor substantiated.

According to Food First, the benefits of small scale farming, or polyculture farming, are greatly underestimated. In the United States alone, farms whose lands are 27 acres or less have more than ten times greater output per acre than large monoculture farms. And as Pollan explains in his book, this is largely due to the amount of diversity that exists in such a system. Feeding the soil with much needed nutrients and supplying the farmer and his family with an ample supply of food, something that is completely absent in monoculture farming.

Polyculture farming has emerged to show not only that diversity is necessary and more effective, but that modeling a natural ecosystem without pesticides and fertilizers gives us a cleaner and greener environment. This in turn eliminates the amount of waste that builds up, since in monoculture farming the soil cannot be used after copious amounts of chemicals have been injected into the earth.

So again, how one chooses to measure efficiency makes all the difference. As I see it, polyculture farming generates not only environmental gains, but an improvement in the farmers lives, since they can live off the crops they grow. In contrast, monocultures have made farming an extremely difficult industry since only a few farmers grow all of the food which is produced. This not only eliminates jobs domestically, but also internationally, as globalization and comparative advantage cause foreign countries to import many of our crops. And because our crops are subsidized by the government, they are much cheaper   than foreign crops,  devastating the businesses of farmers abroad since they cannot compete with U.S prices.

Looking once again at the advantages for monocultures, it seems clear that the hidden costs not mentioned contradicted all of the advantages and benefits of monoculture farming. It just doesn’t make sense to me why we went down this road in the first place, and why the power of monocultures is growing in today’s industry. Monoculture farming is not more productive, nor less wasteful, nor does it produce more food which aids our domestic and global markets since farmers abroad are struggling to compete with U.S prices. And yes, it reduces the amount of land being used, but at what severe and irreversible  costs to our environment and ecosystems?

I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to reach your own conclusion about monocultures. As for me, I will add just one more thought,  expressed beautifully by Mario Savio in Berkeley in 1964 during the civil rights movement:

“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

[Photo credit: Robert Crum via Flickr]

Anoush Alexanian is a junior  at the University of California, Berkeley.
Along with  studying Political Economics and minoring in Dance, she is a passionate advocate of food and health sustainability.

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