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Monoculture : a controversial farming practice

Updated: Mar 6


Soya monoculture
Soya monoculture








Whether used in agriculture or forestry, monoculture involves growing or planting a single plant species at a time on vast tracts of land, using a low labour-intensive cultivation system that requires more advanced technological resources.


This practice allows you to be efficient because you use production and exploitation techniques repeatedly over large areas. It is therefore a common practice, but it has his faults. The most popular monocultures today are cereals (wheat, soya, maize), sugar cane and cotton. Or in forestry, with eucalyptus and pine, among others.


In this blog we're going to explore this monoculture, highlighting its advantages, disadvantages and important points to bear in mind.


Should we continue down this path of mass monoculture?



A bit of history


Initially, monocultures appeared out of necessity, introduced to answer a growing need for food.


Even so, it is difficult to set a specific date when monoculture began, as it developed gradually over time as farming practices evolved.


However, the first practices of monoculture can be traced back to the time of the first agricultural revolution, also known as the "Neolithic Revolution", which took place between 10,000 and 2,500 BC.




The advent of industrial agriculture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries marked a new era for monoculture: technological advances, the use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and agricultural machinery led to huge increases in yields, but also intensified large-scale monoculture practices, often to meet the growing demand of world markets.


Cyrus McCormick, 1831, his harvester, which gave birth to agricultural mechanisation
Cyrus McCormick, 1831, his harvester, which gave birth to agricultural mechanisation


After the Second World War, French agriculture, which had been family-based and fragmented at the time, changed and moved closer to the American model, favouring medium-sized farming structures of between 30 and 50 hectares, with modern tools and intensive agronomic practices. This was the Marshall Plan and also the start of monoculture in France.





Challenges and paradoxes


According to estimates by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), by 2050, when the world's population reaches 9 billion, demand for food will have increased by 70%.


Furthermore, it should be noted that in the Western world, over the last hundred years, the rural population has fallen from 50% to 20%. This ever-smaller percentage of the population then has to feed the world's ever-growing population.


All this for less and less aid and less consideration for the work of these farmers.


In an effort to increase productivity, the agri-food industry is turning more and more to monoculture, which is more prolific but requires much more fertiliser and pesticides (herbicide, fungicide, etc.) because it is a farming practice that is more quickly affected by disease.


This situation suggests that large-scale production through monocultures could meet future needs, as it represents the most efficient way of optimising yields and profits. However, this extensive industry, although generating large quantities, would not be a solution but rather a problem, as it would deteriorate productive land, leading to long-term soil degradation.


This is why it is becoming imperative to promote and facilitate the practice of mixed farming, particularly in organic farming, so that more sustainable approaches can become widespread.


Advantages of monoculture


For farmers and foresters :


Simplicity of management - Specialisation and concentration on a single species from seed to harvest (and even marketing), with the aim of optimising farming practices specific to that species, whether in terms of monitoring (disease, pests), maintenance (water requirements, fertilisers) or equipment (specific machinery), because the needs and growth are similar. You don't need to be a specialist in the field and think about which plant combinations to use.


Economic efficiency - Reducing capital and labour costs while increasing land-use efficiency. In a context of growing demand for food and agricultural products, this approach appears to be an indispensable asset.

It involves reducing the costs associated with crop diversification, resulting in the use of a single type of equipment and fertiliser.


High, predictable yields - Mass sowing of the same type of plant ensures efficient production by concentrating resources on a single species. This approach enables farming practices to be optimised to achieve higher, more controlled yields at lower cost.



For us as consumers :


Availability and accessibility - Concentrating on a single crop allows large-scale production, which ensures constant availability of products on the market. Consumers then have access to a wide range of foods all year round, regardless of the growing season.


Stable and affordable costs - Products from monocultures tend to be much more affordable than those from organic farming.


Uniformity and consistent quality - Products are uniform in terms of size and taste. This consistency makes it easier to meet consumer expectations and offers a more predictable culinary experience.


Innovation and diversification of processed products - The constant availability of raw materials is encouraging industries to develop a variety of by-products of all kinds, offering consumers an even wider choice of ways to process their favourite food.


However, the emergence of monoculture, generally practised on very large farms, as the dominant model is causing its share of problems for the ecosystem.


Disadvantages of monoculture


Soil depletion - Overexploitation of the soil, which becomes weakened and eroded, making it less fertile over time, has an impact on its natural ecosystem made up of the micro-organisms, micro-fauna, fungi, etc. it needs to function. Monoculture destroys this natural biodiversity.


illustration of soil depletion © Farm3
illustration of soil depletion © Farm3



Dependence on chemical inputs - The depletion of soil nutrients (seen above) leads to the use of more chemical inputs such as pesticides and fertilisers to compensate for this shortage and maintain monoculture productivity. Repeated use of the same chemical fertilisers makes the soil dependent on these pesticides and demands even more of them.


What's more, the repeated use of the same chemicals to combat pests and diseases can eventually lead to the appearance of new ones that are resistant to them. In the long term, the soil becomes unusable.


This dependence also has effects on the product in question, which ends up being very chemical.



Increased vulnerability to pests and diseases (pests, fire, etc.) - Ideal conditions for species-specific pests and diseases. Provides ideal conditions for species-specific pests and diseases.

With no other plants to take up the slack, they have the power to spread rapidly and decimate the entire crop.


Some species are more flammable or simply catch fire in the same way, so there is also a very high risk of loss if there is no diversification.


There is also a risk of bankruptcy if there is a disease specific to the plant or a climatic disaster.


The principle is the same as for battery farming: you increase the chances of contracting a disease by bringing so many animals of the same species together in a small space.


importance of taking over (forestry)
importance of taking over (forestry)

Deforestation - In favour of crops and pastures. Not to mention the foreign monocultures on which France relies for a large part of its imports.

Forests are home to 80% of all biodiversity, and it is estimated that nearly 27,000 plant and animal species disappear every year as a result of deforestation. Forests now cover only 30% of the earth's surface, compared with 66% 400 years ago.

Loss of food diversity - With centuries of harvesting and sowing, where only certain species that are more resistant and easier to grow have been selected to achieve perfection, we have now lost a large part of the diversity of the foods we eat. Figures show that twelve types of plant and five types of animal already account for 75% of the world's food. The reduction in cultivated species is limiting genetic diversity, compromising long-term food security and leading to serious consequences in the event of disease or environmental change.


Loss of biodiversity and pollution - Monoculture leads to increased use of insecticides and other pesticides, resulting in the destruction of animal habitats. Soil and water pollution from fertilisers and pesticides used in excessive quantities, which also find their way into water tables and coastlines.


If we take the example of the forest environment, by cultivating only one species of tree, the biodiversity of the forest becomes poor, reducing the habitats available for wildlife.



Examples of problems linked to monoculture :


The Irish Potato Famine

The Potato Blight, 1847, Daniel MacDonald
The Potato Blight, 1847, Daniel MacDonald
The Irish potato Famine between 1845 and 1852 saw its potato crops ruined by downy mildew (disease caused by a parasitic fungus), which affected a huge number of people, since since the beginning of the 19th century, this foodstuff has been the mainstay of the diet of at least half the population. The highly nutritious potato is easy to grow and can be found just about anywhere.
In all, a million people died and another million had to flee to North America and Great Britain, mainly, causing the country's population to fall from 8.5 to 6.5 million in the space of 6 years. Emigration became a structural phenomenon and continued until 1911, when the Irish population fell to 4.4 million.
Potato downy mildew © Dr. Steve Johnson
Potato downy mildew © Dr. Steve Johnson

Forest fires 2017


In 2017, Portugal suffered major forest fires that destroyed 442,000 ha of vegetation between the beginning of January and the end of October, setting an all-time record. Portugal lost 4% of its woodland, the highest proportion of any country, and almost half of the forests burnt in the entire European Union.
The reason : eucalyptus, widely grown in Portugal as a monoculture for the paper industry because of its rapid growth, is a tree that is not indigenous to the region and is highly flammable.
Its rapid growth cycle (10-15 years) is particularly exploited in the paper industry.
Following the fires of 2017, laws have been passed to reduce the spread of eucalyptus. The Portuguese parliament has passed 3 pieces of legislation as part of a forestry reform aimed at reducing the planting of eucalyptus.

Fire near the Portuguese village of Mega Fundeira, 18 june 2017 ©Miguel Riopa
Fire near the Portuguese village of Mega Fundeira, 18 june 2017 © Miguel Riopa



Solutions and alternatives


The consequences of monoculture are therefore 'beneficial' for the grower in the short and medium term, but can be catastrophic in the long term.

The practice of monoculture must be changed for years to come, as there is a strong possibility of irreversible damage. Fortunately, there are solutions within our reach that can produce results quickly.

It is therefore important to raise awareness and help farmers to work with sustainable methods in the right conditions, so that they have the tools they need to do the job properly and not erode the soil.


To minimise the negative impact, there are techniques such as :


Polyculture - This involves combining different species on the same land so that they complement each other and make the best use of the soil's nutrients. In this way, the soil is not impoverished, and the natural microfauna is not endangered.


This farming system is more productive, helps control pests and diseases and improves defence against external aggressors. This can reduce the use of pesticides.



Crop rotation - This practice involves planting different crops on the same plot at regular intervals, i.e. different plants at different times on the same land, with the aim of preventing soil exhaustion, increasing its fertility and combating parasites, diseases and other pests specific to the crop species that decimate it. A well thought-out rotation can save on inputs.



Particularity of leguminous plant : All plants need nitrogen to grow, but only legumes can capture nitrogen from the air through their roots. When they are harvested, they leave the nitrogen in the soil for subsequent crops.

This is why these species are so interesting in organic farming.


© Farm3
© Farm3



Agroforestry / agroecology - Association of various tree elements such as hedges, trees and copses within the same plot of agricultural land, imitating to some extent the diversity and functionality of natural ecosystems.

This practice promotes biodiversity by combating soil erosion and creating a microclimate specific to the plot that influences its humidity and wind speed.

It also acts as a refuge for biodiversity, and can even provide a micro-habitat for the natural predators of our pests.


© Farm3
© Farm3



But to achieve this, here are a few examples of possible actions:


Reforestation and reducing deforestation - Encourage the reforestation of land degraded by monoculture. Vary species.


Protection of native forests - Strengthen protection by establishing protected areas and applying anti-deforestation policies.


Environmental education - Strengthen environmental education programmes to raise awareness of biodiversity conservation among farmers, local communities and other environmental stakeholders.


The importance of food diversity - As consumers, it's essential that we do the right thing by promoting food diversity and supporting sustainable farming and forestry practices in order to protect our environment: short distribution channels, seasonal food, food from environmentally-friendly farms, labelled food, etc.


Although monoculture can be useful to us personally because of its low price and availability, it is important to vary our diet for a healthy and balanced diet while preserving our planet.


If speciation (the selection of certain species to the detriment of others) is reduced today, populations will be able to adapt to their environment through mutation and natural selection, thereby enriching genetic diversity.


Farmers and researchers are constantly working to find a balance between these advantages and disadvantages, while exploring ways of making agriculture more sustainable and resilient.


It is therefore crucial that we continue to explore these alternative methods, while at the same time continuing to promote farming practices that protect both our planet and our food security in the long term.


Did you know ?


  • There are no monocultures in Switzerland. According to a study by a team led by professor and ecologist Christian Schöb from ETH Zurich, mixed crops generate much higher yields than monocultures in arable farming. Their study was published in the journal Nature Plants.


  • The Cavendish banana, with which we are all familiar and which accounts for the vast majority of banana production, is sterile (it has neither seed nor stone). It is propagated by cloning. All the bananas we eat come from the same monoculture, which exposes the fruit to serious epidemics. The Cavendish banana could disappear within a few years. Panama disease (a devastating fungus) is currently one of the biggest threats to the species.

Wild banana /Cavendish banana
Wild banana /Cavendish banana

  • More than 90% of cultivated food varieties have disappeared from fields over the last 30 years. Find out more

  • A study by the University of Zurich has shown that it is possible to obtain good yields while promoting biodiversity. This finding was highlighted by Professor Hans Pretzsch of the Forest Growth Study Chain. He found that the costs and losses of monoculture are twice as high as the global investment that should be made to preserve biodiversity.

  • At the end of the 90s, a study carried out in a rice field in China already highlighted the benefits of biodiversity. Researchers planted rice varieties vulnerable to a certain fungus with resistant varieties. The results showed an 84% increase in productivity in the mixed rice fields, while the infection rate fell by 94% compared with monocultures. This success led farmers to abandon the use of fungicides.


 

Farm3 is an expert in agronomic data (generation and processing) and the only player to offer a fully integrated solution. Farm3 puts the plant at the heart of your vertical farm projects, enabling you to produce plants out of soil that were not previously possible, at reduced and controlled investment and production costs.


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