Sustainable Agriculture

The Dangers of Monoculture Farming

Monoculture farming has become the standard for today’s industrial agriculture practices, this type of cultivation can be traced back to the sugar plantations in the Caribbean islands over three hundred years ago. It has had lasting and damaging effects on agriculture all over the world, most notably in the United States. Monoculture farming does not simply apply to agricultural crops but also livestock, and the United States has well over a million livestock being raised for beef and dairy production across the country which has significantly increased methane and greenhouse gas emissions. 

Monoculture farming requires enormous areas of land to be repurposed for livestock and growing only one variety of crop. This type of monoculture cultivation is extremely damaging to local ecosystems and communities as it worsens air quality and water quality by creating exponentially more pollution. In addition monoculture farming destroys available fertile soil by reducing natural nutrients leading to dependance on artificial fertilizers that also affect the native pollinators. In this blog post we will be unpacking and examining the negative effects of monoculture farming and how sustainable farming practices can alleviate these pressing agricultural issues by employing such solutions as polyculture farming and vertical farming. 

Monoculture farming is when one type of agricultural crop or one species of livestock is farmed exclusively on a large plot of land, for example corn, soybeans, and/or cows for meat and dairy production. Large fields of land are needed to facilitate this type of agriculture as the expectation for high yields is demanded. Crops and livestock species are selected based on the local climate and land best suited for the specific types of crops; for example wheat crops need flat land with lots of available sunshine and rice crops need a marshy wetland growing environment. 

The most common types of monoculture crops in the United States are cotton, wheat, corn, and soybeans. These crops have been genetically modified and selectively bred to withstand environmental nuisances such as high winds, droughts, colder temperatures… etc while also outputting the highest crop yields. Monoculture farming could arguably be seen as the ‘easiest’ type of industrial farming because it is able to use technical equipment to monitor and harvest these gigantic crops. Farmers can use drones to visually check the enormous crop fields and also employ the use of ground sensors for monoculture cultivation. Farmers are also able to increase efficiency by utilizing specific cropping equipment to harvest the vast yields at one time which reduces labor costs.  

Now, we would be remiss if we did not mention that part of the reason monoculture farming of these four specific crops; wheat, corn, cotton, and soybeans is due to the Farm Bill which provides government subsidies for farmers for the over production of certain crops that are designated as commodities. This bill was introduced in the 1930’s by president Franklin D Roosevelt in response to the dust bowl and Great Depression that claimed many American lives. The Farm Bill is revised every five years, the current Farm Bill is due to be revised in 2023 and was originally created to alleviate food insecurity and keep food prices fair for both consumers and farmers. 

Farming over the past one hundred years has become significantly less profitable due to many factors such as the increasing population, globalization, and climate change. The United States government has sought to incentivize farmers to grow these crops by providing government subsidies to lessen the financial impact for farmers. However, most of these crops are not used for human grade food consumption, the most overgrown crop in the US is corn, and most of it is used to feed livestock, create biofuels, and is used as a by-products for other commonly used products in the market (toothpastes, shampoos, makeup, adhesives, and plastics.) The Farm Bill passed in 2018 which expires this year cost American taxpayers about $428 billion dollars, to help put the financial aspect into perspective. It does not cover crops that are not included as ‘commodities’, severely limiting the profitability for farmers when it comes to growing different types of produce. This indirectly means America has too much corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton, and not enough other cultivation varieties. Sustainable cultivation alternatives are not subsidized at all, resulting in the burden of cost falling directly on American farmers.

So, now that we understand monoculture farming is a highly subsidized form of agriculture in the United States it helps us understand why it has become so prolific in the 21st century despite its many limitations and negative impacts on the environment and human health. Not only does the overproduction of certain crops mean under production of many edible crops but it also creates food insecurity of a different variety; food deserts in urban and rural areas. Food deserts are most common in low income areas which can mean both rural and urban areas are affected. Living in a food desert means that a significant portion of the population does not live within one mile of a grocery store. This creates a reliance on processed foods with little nutritional value, but a high caloric content and a long shelf life. These types of packaged processed foods are inexpensive and last a long time in storage, unlike fresh produce, making them a necessity for those living in low socioeconomic standing because there is not an abundance of available food. In food deserts fresh produce is inaccessible, i.e. fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, meat and fish and dairy, all of which is required to live a healthy and hospitable life. Communities suffer because of lack of available fresh and healthy produce and a nonexistent local foods movement, while the surrounding ecosystems also suffer due to the severe negative environmental impacts of monoculture farming. 

When farmers grow only one type of crop it opens them up to more pest infestations, pests are most copious on farmlands when only one type of crop is grown year after year, meaning farmers must use pesticides. Pests learn to adapt and reproduce themselves more effectively which means the use of pesticides on monoculture farms has to be heavy handed and increased year after year to combat the pests. This cycle is worsened because these pests and parasites become more resistant to the pesticides after continual use which in turn creates a need for farmers to use stronger and more deadly pesticides. These pesticides release chemicals into the ground contaminating the soil and groundwater. 

Monoculture cultivation destroys the natural balance of soil, when too much of the same species of crop is planted the nutrients are depleted from the dirt while also reducing the structure and stability of the soil. This leads to erosion because only one type of root is growing, preventing soil erosion requires multiple different types of root variation to maintain stable soil structure. Not only is pesticide usage increased with monoculture farming, but so is the reliance on artificial fertilizers since the soil is being drained of natural nutrients. Soil is enriched by healthy and thriving biodiversity which is non-existent on monoculture farms. Farmers must artificially boost the soil's fertility by using chemical fertilizers which in turn devastates the natural ecosystem because the fertilizers contaminate the groundwater and create runoff. 

Monoculture farming also requires substantially more water usage because of the lack of available biodiverse root systems to maintain a stable soil structure. Monoculture farms are dealing with a depleted layer of topsoil which helps the ground retain moisture, to combat this issue farmers are forced to use more water to keep the crops healthy. Sequentially increased water usage creates more fertilizer runoff affecting the local ecosystems, as chemicals are carried from the farm to natural habitats infecting the local species of plants and animals. 

All of these monoculture practices have disastrous effects on pollinators, the inflated use of pesticides, herbicides, and artificial fertilizers disrupt the natural sequences of pollinators' reproductive cycles. Not only is their reproductive cycle destroyed, but most often the use of pesticides and herbicides kills the pollinators, specifically bees. The pollinators that can survive these harsh conditions are lacking nutrients since there is no biodiversity to be found in these crops. Monoculture fields tend to stretch for miles, making the obtainable food for these bees and other pollinators scarce and lacking in nutrients because there is a lack of microorganisms available. When a bee is unable to get adequate nutrients their immune system is also weakened, making them more susceptible to the harmful effects of pesticides and artificial fertilizers. The practice of monoculture farming can be directly linked to the declining bee population, bees have been around for the past 130 million years pollinating the earth, it is not difficult to imagine a grand scale environmental collapse will be inevitable if bees become extinct. 

Monoculture farming also puts a great deal of stress on farmers, as previously stated, farmers tend to dedicate large areas of land to one crop, meaning a field of corn can stretch for multiple miles. If something were to happen that could devastate the entire crop, i.e. exceptional drought or extensive rain and flooding, the farmer has lost their entire source of income for that growing season which can be enough to put them out of business. It is incredibly unfortunate that this form of cultivation has so many devastating effects on communities and ecosystems but is so heavily subsidized by the government, because monoculture farming is inarguably a bad practice for both the environment and the population. Farmers are encouraged to cultivate this way to stay profitable and are given very little financial tools to pursue sustainable alternatives such as cultivating biodiverse polyculture farms. 

Polyculture farms are rich in biodiversity and are the classic farming approach that entails cultivating multiple different crops and farming many different species of livestock. This ensures the soil fertility and structure is retained, it keeps pollinators well fed and healthy, and it supports local communities. Polyculture farms are also less reliant on the use of synthetic pesticides and herbicides, and because the soil still has a healthy layer of topsoil, water usage is decreased and so is the need to utilize artificial fertilizers. Biodiversity is crucial to support a thriving healthy ecosystem as it significantly reduces pollution and can feed local communities that live in areas with higher food insecurities. Vertical farming can alleviate these pressures in urban areas, where the cultivation of fresh produce is abundant and does not need to be shipped out of the surrounding community and biodiverse polyculture farms are a wonderful resource for rural areas. These two sustainable farming practices used in tandem can help reduce the abundance of food deserts in low socioeconomic areas, making the overall population healthier. 

While current economic models make it impossible to completely get rid of monoculture farming, these practices are so harmful that monoculture farming must be discouraged and alternative farming methods deserve to be government subsidized as well. Traditional polyculture farming worked so well for centuries because it created a rich biodiversity and it served local communities, keeping them well fed on fresh produce, air quality is not negatively impacted, and the groundwater is not adversely affected. Vertical farming is a modern invention and one that holds a lot of promise if done correctly. If we have learned anything from farming over the past one hundred years, there is no one size fits all approach or quick fix, there must be multiple solutions to fix the greater problem at hand.  American farmers need better infrastructure and financial assistance to facilitate better and healthier growing environments. Investing and subsidizing vertical farming in urban areas is one way to combat these issues, summer 2023 has been the hottest recorded summer on record. Greenhouse gas emissions are at an all time high, the ocean has never been warmer, and the icecaps are melting faster than scientists predicted. We as a global society must change our approach to the way we grow and obtain food, the current monoculture method that is prolific not only in the United States, but all around the world, is unsustainable and creates disastrous effects for the environment, animals, and most importantly, humans.