Sustainable Ag and the Trouble with Monoculture

With deep gratitude to the investigative journalism of Michael Pollan and to the burgeoning intrusion of natural fiber alternatives into the fashion industry, the general public is growing increasingly aware of the need for a revival of sustainable agriculture. In a climate of concern and sometimes desperation, buzzwords like green, organic and sustainable may be cast into the breeze like so many granules of pollen, but they mean little without a proper context for understanding the roots of this thorny issue. Agronomy is not a subject to be mastered overnight, but one to be studied over the seasons of a lifetime. For now let’s consider the modern method of monocropping.

In the past 80 years or so, the art and science of agriculture has undergone an astonishing transformation in order to keep up with the hyperbolic rate of world population growth. The need to extract an ever-growing quantity of produce — whether for food, fuel or fiber — from a planet of limited resources has required a massive wave of innovation among an ever-shrinking number of increasingly specialized farmers. The capacity of these mega-farms to meet the demand of global consumption with sufficient supply and minimal prices represents a genuine triumph of modern civilization. But (you knew there’d be a but, right?), at what cost?

One of the key components of this hyper-efficient system of modern farming involves the technique of cultivation called monoculture, growing huge areas of a single crop, such as the millions of acres in and around Iowa farmed exclusively for corn. If you visit almost any major farm in the world, you will see this technique in practice, row after identical row of crop X, bred to perfect uniformity and invariable mediocrity. The tidy, geometric rows may bear a certain appeal to the post-industrial, minimalist sense of aesthetic, but the impact on both the farmland and the finished product can be detrimental.

In the old days of subsistence farming, a family would plant variegated rows of roots, tubers and vegetables to ensure themselves a diverse diet come harvest time. But because each crop has its own soil nutrient and water needs, not to mention pruning and harvesting methods, this method of “polyculture” is certainly not the most efficient for large scale production. On the other hand, it does tend to yield a more nutritious and full flavored product with minimal pest and disease issues.

These are the chief problems we can associate with monocropping. When thousand of acres of broccoli or cotton, for example, are cultivated en masse, they are guaranteed to deplete the soil of those specific nutrients that broccoli or cotton use most. Industrial agriculture addresses this issue with the heavy application of chemical fertilizers. Residue and run-off from these petrochemical fertilizers has been demonstrated to be potentially harmful to both the habitat and the end consumer.

Secondly, monocropping results in the crop’s severe vulnerability to pests and diseases. An unnaturally high concentration of a given plant is sure to attract and support an unnaturally high number of whichever pests thrive on that plant, while their natural predators will remain absent or ineffective. Likewise, a plant-specific disease could spread like the plague across the exposed acreage of monoculture. Again, these man-made challenges are overcome with manmade solutions, i.e. the heavy application of pesticides and insecticides, with whose risks we are already familiar, those which chemical companies like Monsanto fervently deny.

How to draw the greatest efficiency out of a plant without chemically-intensive monocropping is a leading concern among organic farmers. Many have simply resorted to the use of more natural and organic fertilizers, animal-derived but industrially produced. But we might also look to nature for her solutions.

Unlike cotton and broccoli, there are a number of plants that actually thrive in monoculture conditions. Take the giant redwood, for example. They can stand alone, with reasonable success, in parks and gardens up and down the west coast, but only in vast swaths do they truly thrive. In their native habitat, these evergreen macro-organisms generate a climate of their own, attracting storm systems to satisfy their unquenchable thirst, while also sheltering one another from the high winds. As these old-growth forests shrink, the viability of individual trees is put at peril. That ecological sensitivity makes redwoods less than ideal as a crop for commercial cultivation, but under responsible forest management, other trees can be grown and harvested for lumber with a minimal environmental impact.

In addition to certain trees, many grasses also thrive in a monoculture. One of these grasses is bamboo. Not only does it renew itself with ease (similar to your front yard after it’s mown), and grow at record rates of several inches (even up to a couple feet) per day, but it also flourishes in the modern farmers’ ideal setting: the monoculture. Hence it can be cultivated on a commercial scale with minimal unnatural assistance. As a lumber alternative, its rate of renewability outpaces most trees by about 10 or 20 to one. As a fiber alternative, it leaves cotton in the dust; conventional cotton, after all, is subjected to more heavy chemical crop dusting than any other plant on the planet.

So if you’re concerned about sustainable agriculture, you need to be thinking about alternatives to unnatural monocropping. But if you’re interested in agricultural efficiency, you may find the large scale of monoculture all too enticing. While something of a botanical phenomenon, bamboo cannot and should not replace replace every other source of lumber and fiber on the planet, but it certainly cannot be ignored. It must play a major role in the global polyculture of the future, as we struggle to meet the needs of a shrinking planet, a mushrooming population, and an overburdened environment.

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