What has monoculture ever done for us? Well, it created civilization, that’s what. Cultivating a few key crops enabled us to turn our minds and energies to things other than basic survival. Work diversified, allowing activities that did nothing to fill the belly, but that had other value, like creating beauty in music and art; building cities, power, and wealth; exploring human philosophy and examining the universe. With the cultivation of cereal crops and the domestication of animals, people settled and the evolution of civilization began.
So, is monoculture really such a bad idea? Why not celebrate it?
It’s Not Just About Farming Anymore.
The Free Dictionary defines monoculture in two ways:
1. The cultivation of a single crop on a farm or in a region or country.
2. A single, homogeneous culture without diversity or dissension.
We’ve come to associate monoculture with genetic uniformity, deep tillage, as well as pesticide and herbicide use. We think of it as an artificial system that wouldn’t exist in nature. This is partially true. Modern broccoli and kale couldn’t exist, as they are, in the wild. They’d provide a banquet for insects and disease in very short time. If lucky, there’d be enough genetic diversity for a few individuals to survive and seed, eventually returning the species to its wild state. But is that true for all crops? Why were crops like cereals the first to be widely cultivated? Why have these plants become our modern dietary staple around the world?
The second definition of monoculture is quite different. It may not be obvious, but our modern mono-“culture” goes hand-in-hand with our agricultural practices. It all boils down to economy of scale and something called Hotelling’s Law.
In 1929 Harold Hotelling described how manufacturers of consumer goods aim to satisfy the needs of the broadest segments of our populations. Niche markets can be profitable, but they’re smaller, more fickle and so less attractive to big sellers. This is why fast-food chains serve up meals that are so similar. It’s why trends happen—one chain will offer smoothies, for instance, and the next year or two all the competition sells the exact same item.
Harold’s law is also called “the principle of minimum differentiation” and can apply to everything from business to politics and ideas. Having one pioneer take on the risks of introducing something new, then waiting to see if they’re successful before following suit makes good economic and political sense. Unfortunately, for a healthy culture, we need the innovators and risk takers. An ultra-conservative society afraid to step outside the mainstream or even to voice an idea that may be unpopular leads to stagnation.
This focus on uniformity is well represented in agriculture, where Big Ag wants to make the biggest buck for the least effort. Big Ag is comprised of a relatively few food producers. Centralized production and food management create an economy of scale that increases the bottom line. This is paramount to big companies like General Mills, ConAgra, Cargill and Coca-Cola who are buying up smaller organic producers and now dominate the organic market in North America. One of the results of this lack of producer diversity is the desertification of the grocery aisle.
Natural Law: Where Does Monoculture Fit In?
There turns out to be many instances of naturally occurring monocultures in nature. Single plant species that have evolved to thrive in disturbed environments are the most likely to dominate an ecological niche. Flood and fire are two of natures more common means of causing mischief. Cereals and others that simultaneously produce large seeds that germinate and grow quickly are best able to survive such disruptions, and their dense growth habit naturally inhibits competition from other plant species. In the same way that we might grow a cover crop to damp down weeds, wild cereal crops crowd out most other species besides their own.
But wild cereals are not only better equipped to survive natural disturbances, they thrive on them. Wild relatives of wheat like einkorn form dense stands, and researchers testing yields discovered these grasses often produced as much seed per square meter as modern cultivated wheat. Wild emmer also grows in huge stands as dense as their cultivated cousins.
David Wood, a writer for LEISA Magazine, a publication promoting sustainable agriculture in India, defends natural monoculture citing many instances where it can be found in the wild. Natural monoculture occurs more often in marginal areas between land and water sources. An example is the wild rice that our Neolithic ancestors discovered when they first entered southeastern Asia, where regular flooding of rivers draining from the Himalayas nourished the swamps where wild rice grew.
Rice also produces large seeds and grows quickly, and so outperforms its competition in the continually disturbed environment of seasonal flooding. By taking advantage of this natural bounty and replicating the environment that supports it through terracing and diverting flood water, rice eventually became the staple diet for much of the world.
There are also examples of animal monocultures that thrive in nature. Wasps, bees, ants, termites, and mole rats all form colonies of sisters that are driven to forgo individualism for the sake of the family group. The unquestioned success of these animals in nature stumped Darwin, who regarded them as the biggest challenge to his theory that diversity within species drove evolution.
The millions of buffalo that once roamed the plains of North America were certainly not as closely related as hive insects, but they could be considered a natural monoculture. If you have a herd that is so large it covers the landscape to the horizon in all directions, it’s safe to say you have a single species dominating an environment. The thing that buffalo, insects, and wild cereal crops have in common though is genetic diversity within the species. This is even true of hive insects, although Darwin couldn’t have known that. Individual differences still drive natural evolution, whereas profits drive modern cultivated monoculture, with crops becoming less and less genetically diverse.
The Risks of Cultivated Monoculture
When we first started to scratch the ground and plant some seeds, the first crops we grew were already well represented in nature. They were grasses like wheat and rice that thrive as natural monocultures. We quickly began to grow other plant varieties and learned how fertilization and rotating crops kept the soil fertile and the plants healthy. The first successful crops we grew had a healthy genetic diversity, and cultivation enhanced that diversity. The potato has a single wild ancestor that was developed by early farmers into over a thousand sub-species. Most of these sub-species were developed to thrive in other areas with different pest and ecological pressures. This diversity can be a resource as our climate and environment changes.
The decline of genetic diversity within all species, both wild and cultivated, plant and animal, has scientists around the world ringing alarm bells. They warn of another collapse of a staple crop that could have devastating results. Examples of this already exist, a famous one being the Irish potato famine. In the 1500’s, the Spanish first encountered potatoes in the Andean highlands of the new world. Out of the thousands of cultivated species the Peruvians had developed, only a handful were introduced to Europe. One of these was the famous Irish Lumper.
The Lumper was grown successfully for three hundred years in Ireland and became the staple diet of the poor. But whatever genetic inventory was present in the original potatoes was lost over time as tubers were simply saved from season to season, creating generations of clones susceptible to disease. In 1845 the country was swept by a potato blight the Lumper had no defense against. As a result over a million people died of starvation.
Of the 80,000 edible plants in the world, 20 species such as wheat and corn provide 90% of the world’s food. Big Ag manipulates genes to enhance traits that create reliable and diverse products and profits, rather than to provide nutritious food or protect diversity. It’s not the agricultural industry driving the effort to create seed banks of endangered plants – it’s independent scientists, conservation groups and those farmers and homesteaders who save their own seeds, grow the older strains and raise rare heritage animals.
So, perhaps agricultural monoculture per se isn’t bad, as long as genetic variation within a species is protected, and the relationship of natural monoculture crops to their environment is understood and respected.
Monoculture in the Present: Oh! The Blandness of It All
We had the experience recently of visiting some friends in a new modern suburb and becoming quite lost. Of course not all the street signs were up yet and the place was a maze of cul de sacs and circular lanes flanked by houses that were all variations of a similar theme. We discovered what’s called “power centers”. These are outdoor malls with big box stores selling everything from electronics to bedding to furniture surrounding immense parking lots. Restaurant franchises were limited to about a dozen. To folks used to an eclectic mix of small single owner shops and family run restaurants, this landscape was a desert. No matter where we turned, the view was identical. The blandness of it all was breathtaking.
We finally got to where we were going, but it took a phone call and some determined navigational skills to make it. Although the house turned out quite nice and it was a great visit, we were never happier to leave a neighborhood.
Have you ever purchased one of those gift cards you can pick up in drug stores and other places that are good in several different restaurants? Take a look at these. All of these restaurants are owned by the same company who bundle purchase incentives for any of their outlets onto one card. All the meats and produce are acquired, warehoused, processed according to the menus of the restaurant franchise, then distributed to each location. If you think you’re eating different fare at different restaurants, you’re not. It’s the same food, just repackaged.
Monoculture is well represented even on those colorful, well stocked store shelves. Look at the store brands and no-name brands in your grocery aisles and read the labels. There are many that contain exactly the same ingredients as the big name brand items do. The generic apple juice you buy at a discount is identical to the one you pay premium for in the bright branded label. It’s often sourced from the same supplier and packaged in one facility. Only the labels are switched.
We may think we’re buying diversity, but we’re not. What are we missing in this bland landscape? Independence from the tyranny of ever growing corporate power centers? Lack of competition to provide value? Some nutritional element processed out of our food? Protection against another potato famine, or perhaps worse?
If there’s a flaw in the system, who do you turn to?
Polyculture: Can We (Should We) Return?
Polyculture by definition is a system of agriculture that understands, respects and works within parameters set down by nature. It involves crop rotation, multi-cropping, companion planting and encouraging beneficial insects. Its goal is to increase the genetic diversity within a species. It’s more labor-intensive than artificial monoculture. Although not all crops are organically grown, farmers and homesteaders who follow polyculture practices are more often interested in sustainable farming growing crops for their disease resistance, nutritional and flavor value. None of these things are generally attractive to Big Ag.
If you grow a variety of crops and are careful in their management, a small farm can provide for much of your nutritional needs. A collective of farms and gardens can provide for the nutritional needs of the areas around them. Polyculture is the answer to eating local. Artificial monoculture, on the other hand, is highly attractive to Big Ag. Their attention is on creating efficient channels moving raw materials to manufacturing plants to grocery chains. Their advertising is directed to the end user – you and me – but their product is designed to withstand their process, not to feed us. They manipulate nature rather than work with it.
But, monoculture doesn’t have to be this way. There are examples from around the world where monoculture works. Many single-crop farms rotate their fields and grow a single species with genetic depth. In China, a study reported in Nature magazine revealed that planting several varieties of rice in the same field increased yields by 89%. Pesticides were no longer needed because crop diversity created a 94% decrease in disease.
It isn’t the waving fields of wheat or corn that are the problem. It’s a system that has at its core a love of profit over people. Cereal crops are natural choices for monoculture. Most other plants are not. If you grow a single crop and keep an eye on genetic diversity within the species and its natural relationships within its environment, you can grow a healthy harvest that’s good for you and for the planet. We’ve been doing this since the very beginning of farming.
It’s only recently we’ve elbowed Mother Nature aside to replace whole ecosystems with artificial, genetically uniform crops. Yes, growing the staples we’ve come to rely on did create civilization and all the technology, art and luxury we enjoy today. But the modern trend toward the desertification of our food supply just might be the undoing of all that.