Monocultures in Agriculture
Modern agriculture frequently makes use of the practice of “monocropping” in order to drive efficiency in production. Today’s farmer plants and grows plants that have been designed to be genetically similar (or identical) to other plants in the field’s stand in order to minimize competition among plants and allow the timing of fertilizer, weeding and harvesting to be simultaneous across large acreage. Modern mechanized farming implements have been designed to plant, cultivate, irrigate, fertilize, and harvest one plant type at a time. The plants are often planted in rows, all at or near the same time to allow passes over the rows to be uniform in nature.
How Pervasive is Monoculture?
It could probably be argued that most modern agriculture, if not in a strict monoculture, is using very few species on their farm. Of all the plants and animals mother nature provides us, most of the calories consumed by today’s humans are being derived from very few plants and animals. Most of these plants and animals have been selected for the ease with which they can be raised, harvested, shipped, and stored before consumption. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, fully 75% of our food supply is derived from a mere 12 different plant species, while 15 different birds and animals make up over 90% of the animals we raise for consumption.
What Are The Risks?
Because specific plant species are selected for production based on their ability to grow well under the specific environmental conditions where grown the plants are at a greater risk to changing conditions. For example in extreme weather genetically diverse stands provide a buffer to enable the stand to withstand environmental changes. For this reason, genetically diverse crops reduce the chances that a farmer will suffer from a devastating crop loss from a weather driven event. Harvard talks about those risks of monocropping here.
Insect and Disease
In a mono-cropping environment, the plants can be more vulnerable to pest, disease and pathogens. Pathogens spread more easily. Pathogens build up resistance to commercial applied defenses, and the lack of , and epidemics tend to be more severe, when the host plants (or animals) are more genetically uniform and crowded. The pathogens encounter less resistance to spreading than they do in mixed stands. Outbreaks of disease, invasions of insects, and climate change has the potential to create devastating crop failures and livestock die-offs.
Value of Biodiversity
What often goes overlooked is that even in modern monocropping systems the plants and animals we raise and rely on for our sustenance and subsistence rely on millions of different species of plants, animals, and microorganisms in the soil to survive, replicate and flourish.
By protecting our biodiversity we can build more stable, productive food system and environment. Most studies estimate that population will explode to nearly double in the next 50 years and continuing to increase efficiency in our food system, while simultaneously guarding our environment and natural resources are critical to achieving the crop yields that will feed our growing population.