Monoculture Farming: Is Monoculture Good Or Bad?

Rows of identical plants, typical of monoculture farming operations.

Modern meals rely on modern farming – a complex network of specialized producers that often go unnoticed.

In order to enjoy such a diverse range of foods, monoculture farming is employed all around the world, covering vast swaths of arable land.

Monocrops boost efficiency through tight controls, but these perks come with significant environmental costs.

Alongside environmental issues, monocultures are also one of the main drivers of human rights abuses and wealth inequality; making it a particularly controversial topic.

Not everyone is a farmer, but everyone can become informed about the current state of our food system.

What is monoculture farming?

A fleet of harvester machines scooping up a cotton crop.

A monoculture is simply growing a single crop within a farm or sometimes an entire region. These crops could be anything; ranging from food crops like corn and rice to staples used in the fashion industry like cotton.

monoculture: growing a single type of crop

To illustrate how common monocropping is, let’s take a look at a stereotypically healthy, eco-conscious Western breakfast:

  • A slice of wheat toast
  • Some avocado with cherry tomatoes
  • Fried tofu scramble with a bit of spinach
  • Coffee and melon slices on the side

This single plate – while delicious – is likely the product of six or seven different countries, all of which mainly grow their crops within massive monoculture plantations.

While a bit different, factory farms raising a single type of animal could also be considered monocrops; things like chickens and pigs or large apiaries built for honey producing bees – although the environmental impact of meat is really a different topic.

Because of how common it is, it seems like this system has been around forever; however, the agricultural practice of monocropping is a relatively recent development and one worth revisiting.

How did monocrop farming become the standard?

Farmers focusing on one single crop wasn’t always the norm. After the tail end of the Second World War, a booming population demanded an increase in food production within Europe and other regions; which meant vast amounts of money flowing into the agricultural industry – an industry that benefited immensely from an explosion in science and technology funded by war.

That isn’t to say monocrop agriculture didn’t exist before this; but the spread of globalization has led us away from small-scale subsistence farming in many regions of the world. Corporate food suppliers now control a tightly-wound, interconnected web of massive, specialist farms all over the world.

Aerial view of a machine spraying defoliant on a cotton crop.

Humans just so happen to be incredibly adept farmers, leading to some significant leaps in efficiency and profits for those in charge of global supply chains. Here are just a few examples of monoculture crops that are probably a part of your life:

These are just a few examples, but these particular crops are some of the most-talked about when it comes to the advantages and disadvantages of monoculture agriculture:

What are the pros and cons of monoculture farming?

Monoculture crops carry most of the weight of our globalized food system, as well as hundreds of other essential materials. For this reason, among others, experts don’t always agree on whether or not monocropping is the best way for us to farm. Regardless, there’s plenty of evidence that monocultures cause significant environmental damage – let’s look at both sides:

Pros of monoculture

It’s not hard to imagine how monocultures result in massive amounts of food, and this system does have a number of benefits that allow many of us to live relatively comfortable lifestyles.

Growing one crow is an efficient use of land. Tending to a single type of crop means you’re only required to fulfill the requirements of one plant species: things like water, sunlight, nutritional needs, and other cultivation factors can all be treated as a singular problem to solve.

orange orchard

Interestingly, planting more than one crop can increase yields, but this depends entirely on the region, climate, soil quality, and plants involved. Practically speaking, monocultures are simply easier to maintain for many farmers, and allow them to use the most current harvesting technologies.

Monocrops can be easily harvested by machines. When crops on monoculture farms are ready to be harvested, specialized fleets of machines can be used to make the process more efficient. Essentially, the agricultural machinery industry and the science of growing crops have fused together; a tremendous effort with the goal of reducing the price of food.

A lone cotton harvester gathering crops at dusk.

Huge tracts of farmland can be effectively handled by a single machine – something that may not be possible in more sustainable farming operations where crops with differing harvest windows are grown together.

Monoculture crops can be more specialized. All of these efficiencies in growing and harvesting crops has allowed individual farms, small regions, or even entire countries to supply the bulk of a single food or material – whatever grows the best on their land. Different climates will favor certain plant traits; meaning, a nation can play to its strengths to make your breakfast.

Spain and Chile can use their more moderate climates to grow all of the avocados, Ethiopia can manage many specialty coffees in their cooler afrotemperate highlands, and France or the United States can grow vast fields of wheat or hemp.

ripening avocados

There’s also the more recent explosion in GMOs, which, when used correctly can enhance specific crop varieties, further adapting them to a specific region’s climate.

Monocultural supply chains reach distant markets. Land isn’t the only thing that farmers are attempting to optimize; our globalized shipping infrastructure means that many people currently don’t rely on any local food.

A massive shipping vessel transporting containers across the ocean.

The reason your healthy breakfast is so affordably cosmopolitan comes down to the fact that we can now eat almost any plant at any time of the year, collecting a balanced diet from all corners of the globe. However, with COVID-19, we’ve begun seeing some of the cracks that exist in this system, including the ability of nations with powerful militaries to hold food shipments hostage.

Cons of monoculture

All of these advantages of monoculture farming are fantastic for us consumers – but not so great for the environment. The downsides of this method of farming are numerous, and it may be time we start to reconsider how we grow our food:

Monocultures lead to deforestation, desertification, and water scarcity. To make room for a single-crop farm, some of our planet’s most important forest ecosystems are cut down. Deforestation leads to desertification in many cases – simply put, removing a forest can destroy the ability of soils to reliably produce food.

deforested farmland

For example, within the Corn Belt of the midwest US, around 35% of topsoil has been lost over time; a region that produces around 60-75% of all US corn and soy. These massive regions covered in plant biomass not only require insane amounts of water to grow, but could be undermining the ability of Earth’s water cycle to function properly.

Monocropping fuels industrial apiculture. Many of our food crops rely on pollinators we breed; insects that have no supply of food outside of the flowering season of crops – like bees.

apiculture: the practice of beekeeping

This means beehives are transported all over the country to fill in the gaps, which is known as the pollination circuit. The slice of melon you had alongside your morning coffee likely required bees to be transported in for their pollination skills.

A beehive busy with pollinating bees near a monocrop farm.

So not only are the farms themselves monocultures; the insects we rely on to pollinate these crops are also industrially farmed and bred into vast numbers of bee colonies. These huge numbers not only displace native pollinators, they also contribute to the spread of some drivers of bee colony decline, like varroa mite.

Pesticides are heavily used within monoculture agriculture. The pros and cons of pesticides are numerous and deserve a full explanation of their own, but it’s clear that the widespread use of these chemicals comes with significant downsides.

The problem, really, is that monocropping acts as a catalyst for the use of these chemicals. The technology behind producing, transporting, and applying pesticides on nearly everything we eat wouldn’t exist without the co-evolution of monoculture farming techniques.

Agricultural worker abuse is common. Our current farming system as a whole leaves many opportunities for vulnerable people to suffer from abuse. Farmers and ranchers receive less than 16 cents per US dollar, with even less lining the pockets of the workers they employ.

workers harvest produce

The average Ethiopian coffee farmer earns around $900 per year – around $3 a day; in most US cities, that’s less than the price of a single iced coffee. you don’t have to use such comparisons to see exploitation among agricultural workers, however, as abuse is rampant in almost all aspects of the industry.

Migrant agricultural workers are often left without easy access to internet or transportation; and living within employer-provided housing means a constant threat of violence, theft, and discrimination for many workers, particularly women and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Native and indigenous communities are commonly displaced. Brazil is a good example of a country whose native communities are threatened by the maximization of agricultural profits over the environment and well-being of millions. Monoculture practices are at the heart of this issue, combined with other ecologically harmful industries like mining and the illegal wildlife trade.

Land once maintained by communities with specialized traditional ecological knowledge is often taken by force before being turned into land for cattle ranches or monoculture soy farms.

A protest against indigenous violence gathering in Washington, USA.
Image by Backbone Campaign via Flickr

Humans aren’t the only ones affected either; with smaller areas in which to roam, animal populations are confined and become vulnerable to the spread of disease due to biodiversity loss. This has the added effect of increasing zoonotic disease transmission – that is, the spread of animal diseases to humans.

Wealth inequality increases within a monoculture system. Monocultures are not stable, even for just the raw resources themselves. For example, some popular bananas have gone extinct due to disease – and it could easily happen again.

When working with a monoculture crop is the only way for a farmer to profit, they take on significant financial risk. Combined with the threat of land-grabbing, it’s easy to see how the industry has wound up under the control of a small handful of powerful organizations.

A supermarket filled with food sourced from different countries.

This system strengthens the ability of a small minority of companies to maintain control over the world’s food supply, creating economic dependencies between nations – in America, around four firms control nearly 80% of food products.

What alternatives to monoculture exist?

It seems as if we’ve sacrificed so much for a seasonless Breakfast Without Borders. Biodiversity, the health of our environment, and the freedom of those who tend to the land are all coming apart. So what can be done about it?

Diversifying our crop production involves money – lots of it – at least to begin with; as the added complexity to new approaches requires careful planning and strategizing. Some solutions are within reach already, however, and the losses may be significantly less than expected.

You don’t have to be an expert to contribute towards a more sustainable food system either, and we’ll be covering the things you may want to change in your day-to-day as well:

We currently waste enormous amounts of food grown. The most horrifying aspect of our food system is the fact that over 1 billion tons of edible food is lost throughout its life-cycle. An impossible number to visualize, resulting in around $900 billion lost overall.

A refrigerated truck working to reduce food waste in New York City, USA.

Taking these numbers into account, it seems as if we have quite a large amount of wiggle room after all, as long as proposed solutions don’t result in more losses. A future that embraces sustainable agriculture is possible, and many experts are already working on some interesting solutions.

Diversified cropping systems can be used. Diverfarming is a relatively new concept that focuses on the development of sustainable farm-to-consumer supply chains, specifically adapted to unique climatic regions.

Decades of valuable research gained through traditional farming methods can be adapted to fit within these new techniques, with an emphasis on combining complementary species. The overall goal of diverfarming is to both increase the biodiversity of agricultural regions while also compensating those involved fairly.

A corn field with diverse cover crop herbs sown in between rows.

For example, herbs like thyme or oregano can be introduced between rows of other crops; the farmer’s income stream is diversified with the added benefits of reducing weeds competing for sunlight and eliminating the need for huge quantities of herbicide.

Smart farming can be used to bridge gaps in efficiency. The total automation of our food supply is a scary thought, but many modern farming techniques could help make up for the loss in crop yields compared to monoculture operations.

A farmer using a smart farming device that tracks seed planting data.

The rise of smart farming – using wireless weather and climate sensors, drones, and satellite data – can provide any farmer with high resolution, detailed visualizations of their land. Here’s a fantastic documentary produced by DW on smart farming:

Of course, smart farming and automation can’t solve all the financial issues that come with globalized farming, including agricultural subsidies:

Agricultural subsidies need to be reformed. Subsidies within the agricultural industry wield significant power. Right now, governments around the world pay close to $600 billion in agricultural subsidies – with only 6% of that going towards conservation research and 70% supporting the income of food suppliers.

These subsidies could instead be used to transition us into a sustainable culture using biodiverse farming methods; redistributing farming subsidies could mean more of a focus on the regeneration of Earth’s soils and biodiversity.

Many obstacles stand in the way of this, with complex misinformation networks aiding in the misallocation of hundreds of billions of subsidies in the EU and other areas. This money allows those in favor of our current agricultural system to spread whatever kinds of agricultural greenwashing campaigns they so desire.

Growing your own food at home. If you have access to some land, and the energy to learn a little bit about starting your own garden – you could easily produce some of the food you currently buy from a supermarket.

If you’re interested in that, you should also read up a bit on backyard composting, and browse our guides on what is compostable and what not to compost – easy ways for you to reduce your food waste.

Final thoughts

Our reliance on monoculture farming leaves us vulnerable to disruptions in a system designed around efficient food production.

Recent events like COVID-19 have spawned ideas of a future focused on a more sustainable food system, bringing into focus just how important it is for humanity to strike a balance between what we take and give back to the natural world.

How often do you think about our reliance on monocrops?

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