The monoculture was born of cost, scale and efficiency considerations. It evolved out of Earl Butz's admonition to the farmers to get big or get out and the result has been the demise of small family farms and the rise of large corporate farming enterprises.
This refers to the practice of planting one crop, such as corn or soybeans year after year on the same ground over a large areas. In our case, the large area is most of the U.S. Midwest; they don't call it the Corn Belt for no reason.
Cost efficiencies and technology were the main drivers. With only one crop to focus on, the application of synthetic fertilizers and modern air-conditioned GPS tractors equipped with surround sound systems, it only takes a few people to cultivate thousands of acres of corn or soybeans as far as the eye can see in a fraction of the time that it was done in the past.
Government subsidies of corn and the push to use more of it for fuel or exports is the driving force behind the current corn monoculture. Using corn to produce ethanol as a gasoline additive has to be one of the most misguided ideas ever to flow out of Washington.
There are several downsides to relying on a single crop year-after-year for food and the book, Stolen Harvest, shown below covers them in great detail. In seven chapters, Author Vandana Shiva covers all aspects of the monoculture including the destruction of local food cultures, aquaculture, genetic engineering, seeds, mad cows and food security. Click on the books image to buy it or get more information.
The first downside is that reduced varieties of crops severely limits a foods gene pool resulting in shrinkage of types and varieties of species. The danger is that if a disease wiped out the crop, there would be no alternative; no other variety of corn or whatever that may have been able to withstand the infectious organism.
Much like the great potato famine in Ireland, the result could be mass starvation and not only humans. The cattle, chickens and hogs in factory farms that rely on corn as the primary feed would be hit hard as well.
Another downside is loss of nutrients in the soil, especially trace minerals. The heavy use of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) as the primary chemical fertilizers result in nice looking produce but seriously deficient in key nutrients.
Also when NPK is poured on the fields in abundance we get more farm runoff of these chemicals into drainage ditches then into streams and river tributaries, then into rivers and finally into the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay and the oceans. All of which further reduces the oxygen carrying capacity of the water and endangers already stressed fish.
Yet another downside is the tendency to genetically modify the plants to be a uniform height, have stronger stalks, resist certain diseases and be impervious to pesticides such as Roundup. That is all well and good except that nature has a way of adapting to change.
What we eventually get are super weeds that can withstand Roundup and GM crops, using winds currents, tend to migrate into adjoining heritage crops and into wild areas. Farmers growing traditional crops know this only too well.
Out in Tennessee is a farm that does it right and shows that there is hope for the future of food. It is the Long Hungry Creek Farm and Jeff Poppen, The Barefoot Farmer, is someone you must get to know.
Jeff narrates the embedded You Tube video below, uploaded by the Volunteer Gardner's Channel on 9/8/2011 under the Standard You Tube License. The Volunteer Gardner is a production of Nashville Public Television (NPT). In it Jeff shares his definition of a monoculture which is world's apart from the industrial version of a monoculture.
In this short video he manages to present an incredibly concise discussion of biodynamic farming and the interplay of its components. The world needs to pay attention and learn.
For a view of the monoculture from the world of academia, jump to a writeup by Miguel Altieri from the UC Berkeley or go to the page on "Genetic Manipulation" to see how monoculture naturally led to the genetic engineering all types of food we consume...
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We have only scratched the surface in things to concern us about the future of our food supply.