The Dangers of Monoculture Farming

By Ben Watts

Mon, 8 Oct 2018

The dangers of monoculture farming

Monocultural is essentially the opposite of multicultural. In modern agricultural terms it’s the emphasis of crop specialization. Monoculture in ag involves the growing of a single crop using the majority or whole of the land. This method of farming is particularly popular in industrialized regions. This strategy benefits farmers as it allows reduced costs, but when a single variety of species is grown it can also endanger the farm to widespread crop failure.

The cultivating of monocultures is very much a modern method of agricultural production. It’s common to picture vast field containing wheat, barley, single species of fruit, or vegetable crops. Commercial modern agriculture has the primary aim of increasing yields and profits by cultivating one distinct crop. The principle belief which monoculture farmers have is that by providing the individual needs for just a single species of crop it will be more efficient and profitable. By cultivating a single crop only one method of harvesting needs to take place, hence boosting profitability for the farmer.

A contrasting method to monoculture is permaculture. Permaculture is effectively a reversal in that it promotes biodiversity and the implantation of a diverse range of crops. This method of farming intends to ensure the ecosystem remains strong with different plants working together to thrive the land. Permaculture fundamentally aims to avoid having anything from becoming too influential on the farm to the detriment of other assets, be it species of insect or plant.

Maintaining a diverse variety of crop species and growing a varied range of crops can save the potential jeopardizing of the entire economy. A variety of crops will allow crop failures without ruining the entire economy of a farm specializing in a monoculture such as coffee or tobacco. While monoculture has its place for profitability, it also has significant negative drawbacks with potential to cause irreversible damage to the ecological system.

An example of the devastation monocultural farming can cause is the corn blight of 1970 which ruined more than 15 percent of corn crops in North America. This happened due to 70% of the crop being grown at the same high yield variety, making the corn more susceptible to harmful organisms.

With the lack of diversity in a monoculture system it can cause a limit to the healthy functions nature can bring to crops and soil. A variety of plants will provide beneficial nutrients and having a large range of insects is necessary for ensuring one doesn’t damage too many crops.  By directing away from natural elements provided by the ecosystem, monoculture must replicate these to protect the crops and the profit they make. This involves the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, bactericides.

These synthetic chemicals attempt to prevent crop damage from weeds, insects, and bacteria while providing enough nutrients for growth. There are many negatives surrounding the use of synthetics, particularly for its relationship with nature. Chemicals leave traces on plants intended for consumption and are also regularly overused. Excessive use means that a large quantity of synthetic material is left in the soil after harvest. As the material is not organic it can cause great harm to the soil. Rather than being processed into organic matter by microorganisms, it will weave its way through soil polluting groundwater supplies. Pollution of groundwater will negatively alter neighboring ecosystems and even those at a great distance from the chemicals. Chemical substances will kill and deplete all manner of plants, and diversity of surrounding ecosystems. Nature is, however, evolving to combat synthetics which is encouraging farmers to implement new inorganic methods to prevent resistance. This is causing an ever-increasing amount of chemicals to be applied to monoculture crops, which is having a devastating effect on natural ecosystems.

The overuse of chemical fertilizers has a destructive impact on soil, but monoculture is also a threat to soil degradation in other ways. These include the elimination of ground crops which means there’s no protection from erosion by natural elements such as wind or rain. No plants will also be able to provide leaf litter mulch which is essential for top soil health and fertility. Although many view piles of autumn leaves as a nuisance, they can have many attributes in moderating and enhancing soil. Reuse of the same soil instead of following a determined crop rotation can lead to pathogens and diseases in plants.  The continued degradation of soil is making it unusable for agriculture. Clearing of forests to provide new land will follow with the damaging cycle set to repeat.

Modern monoculture requires vast amounts of rain for irrigating crops as moisture retention is limited in the soil. A lack of topsoil also increases rain runoff. To achieve this vast amount of extra water it means draining from lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, which is exhausting natural resources and aquatic ecosystems. While depleting resources chemicals are also working simultaneously to pollute them.

When selling crops nationally or internationally, sorting, packing and transporting require substantial amounts of fossil fuel energy. Industrialized methods of food production in conjunction with the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides play a considerable role in climate change.

Increasing yields are vital for having affordable food, particularly as the population is increasing. Monoculture farming, however, has some disadvantages you can’t ignore. The worlds long term food production comes at risk from high use of fertilizers, pests, loss of biodiversity, soil fertility and environmental pollution. There is no simple answer in excluding negative impacts of monoculture while keeping its benefits. Introducing more crop rotation could, however, provide a solution for crop health. The practice of crop rotation will help soil quality and pest resistance as different crops will be grown. Crop rotation requires more knowledge of the land before putting the system in place.

Monoculture is, in essence, a system working against the farms natural ecological process.  Permaculture, however, strives to work with nature. If more farmers started implementing permaculture practices it could help prevent the harmful effects monoculture is having on our planet. The economic potential and environmental influence of farming activities correlates with the practice’s farmers choose to follow.

Challenge Advisory has sourced over 40 expert speakers in the Ag 4.0 workshop who will debate issues such as this which effect every modern farmer today. The event will provide a platform for broad research on topics related to monoculture, so farmers can inform what they think is needed to benefit the industry. Panels of particular relevance to this topic discussed include ‘ROI in Precision Ag’ and ‘Ag’s Profitable Sustainability’.

A key speaker in this area is Gabriela Burian, a strategic advisor for food and agriculture with over 20 years’ experience in Ag, and currently Senior Director of Sustainable Ag in Bayer. She is leading the adoption of solutions towards sustainable Ag through making relationships in which to collaborate across cultures.

Speaker Dr. Zhongli Pan, a research engineer, reflects on the importance of discussing sustainable solutions.

‘Sustainable Agriculture has become increasingly important due to increased demand for food, negative impact of climate changes and limited resources. The digital and new technologies to be discussed at Ag 4.0 can play significant roles for the future.’

To find out more about our Ag 4.0 workshop click here:


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Ben Watts

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