Economically, reducing the number of types of crops that a farmer grows makes perfect sense. Just as production lines increase the efficiency of manufacturing, focusing on one crop, with one method of harvesting, and one customer or middleman to deal with, increases the efficiency of food production.
Ecologically, though, monoculture is a disaster. Growing the same crop on the same piece of land, year after year, exhausts the soil of the nutrients used by that crop, which then have to be artificially replaced with fertilizers, usually artificial. When the land becomes damaged beyond use, we have to clear fresh land to replace it. Degraded topsoil has less organic matter, which is needed to retain rainwater, so it becomes prone to run-off into streams and rivers, causing further damage.
Large areas of one crop are susceptible to damage from weeds, insects, blights and bacteria – which we label “pests” for competing with us for food – so we then wage chemical warfare on these “pests”, although things that are bad for pests are often bad for humans too (California Jury Awards $2 Billion To Couple In Roundup Weed Killer Cancer Trial).
Nature is adaptive and resilient, and finds ways to resist our chemicals – so we up the ante, and the increasing chemical load pollutes groundwater, which then flows to other places, affecting ecosystems far from the intended target.
Monoculture also contributes to climate change; with specific regions of the world specialising in specific crops, in order to create the variety of foods demanded by consumers we have to shuffle large quantities of food around the world by road, air, and sea. The more food travels, the more it requires plastic packaging to keep it fresh, and/or energy-intensive refrigeration.
It wasn’t always like this. The earliest records of crop rotation date from 6000 BC (according to Wikipedia). A single piece of land would be used for different crops over a cycle of a number of years, and sometimes left fallow to allow the soil to recover. This system was infinitely sustainable, ensuring the soil’s nutrients were restored and rebalanced, never exhausted. Now we call it permaculture.
My favourite description of permaculture is in the third section of Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where the author visits Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia, an inspiring (though not perfect) example of an almost self-sustaining ecosystem, in which farmer and nature cooperate rather than compete, and nothing is wasted.
For example, their guiding principles include:
INDIVIDUALITY: Plants and animals should be provided a habitat that allows them to express their physiological distinctiveness. Respecting and honoring the pigness of the pig is a foundation for societal health.
COMMUNITY: We do not ship food. We should all seek food closer to home, in our foodshed, our own bioregion. This means enjoying seasonality and reacquainting ourselves with our home kitchens.
NATURE’S TEMPLATE: Mimicking natural patterns on a commercial domestic scale insures moral and ethical boundaries to human cleverness. Cows are herbivores, not omnivores; that is why we’ve never fed them dead cows like the United States Department of Agriculture encouraged (the alleged cause of mad cows).
EARTHWORMS: We’re really in the earthworm enhancement business. Stimulating soil biota is our first priority. Soil health creates healthy food.
Their website goes on to illustrate:
“The laying hens scratch through the dung, eat out the fly larvae, scatter the nutrients into the soil, and give thousands of dollars worth of eggs as a byproduct of pasture sanitation. Pastured broilers in floorless pasture schooners move every day to a fresh paddock salad bar. Pigs aerate compost and finish on acorns in forest glens. It’s all a symbiotic, multi-speciated synergistic relationship-dense production model that yields far more per acre than industrial models.”
I also highly recommend The Running Hare: The Secret Life of Farmland, a lyrical (and occasionally earthy) account of a year in a life of a small field that its owner resolves to farm the old-fashioned way, and witnesses the return of wildlife in abundance, contrasted with the barrenness of the surrounding fields owned by farmers he dubs “The Chemical Brothers”.
Can we feed the world with organic/permaculture farming?
Apparently, yes. And the benefits – for biodiversity, for the oceans, for future generations of humans – are not just significant, they are vital. If we continue with intensive agriculture, we may only have 60 more harvests left – and that is just looking at the soil side of the equation. If insect populations continue to plummet as a result of pesticides and climate change, we may lose our pollinators.
The good news is, we can all contribute to the solution by growing food in our garden, on our balcony or windowsill. We’re moving house this summer, from the town to the country – and I can’t wait to put to use my new book, Veg in One Bed. Even when I was on my boat, I was able to grow fresh sprouts (sponsored by Sproutpeople), which are delicious and packed with healthy goodness.
It’s not difficult to grow some of your own food, and it all helps – less plastic, less environmental degradation, more health and more connection to nature. What’s not to love about that?!
I received this very interesting correspondence after last week’s blog post, Eating Ourselves Out Of House, Home, And Planet:
Please know this email comes from my heart and I have the utmost respect for you! Also, I might be misunderstanding the point you made–my apologies up front if I’ve done that.
In my opinion the passages you quoted from Quinn is part of the “neo-Malthusian” movement, that began way back with Paul Ehrlich and Population Bomb in 50s and 60s. It’s a form of neo-colonialism. Without going into the weeds, here’s what’s true: The human population increases when there is food/health INSECURITY rather than food/health security. Population isn’t growing bc there’s plenty of food. When people don’t have food/health security they have larger families–it’s in the data. All developing countries have high tfr (total fertility rates) bc they are poor and have little future security. Educate them, give them a future and food/health security and the tfr always drops. Most importantly, educate the girls (because boys by default have first crack at education when it first becomes available). Educated girls then have options aside from child bearer and water carrier. Education can’t come without first having food/health taken care of. So, food security isn’t driving population growth–poverty is. My sense is that Quinn is confused on this point, and he falls into the neo-Malthusian trap that (in Malthus’ case) was cloaked misogyny and misanthropy. I’m not saying Quinn was that, but Malthus certainly was that. (The character Scrooge was based on him.) The world population is going to plateau at 10-11 billion by 2100. That plateau only comes with economic development of poor countries. 80% of the world will live in Africa and Asia by 2100. Africa doesn’t have an overpopulation problem–it has a poverty problem.
I can very much see the logic in it, even while feeling faintly depressed at the thought of 10-11 billion humans with all of our consumption, pollution, and general taking-up-of-space.
I’m absolutely all in favour of education and equality (economic and gender being particularly relevant here), and I’m appreciative of the correlation between the education of girls and a drop in birth rates. I do, though, remain tremendously concerned about the impact of our increasing population combined with increasing consumption. The inescapable logic of the IPAT equation again…. (Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology).