Monocrop Farming: Green Revolution or environmental blunder of historic proportions?
While writing about Colony Collapse Disorder (the disappearance of the world’s honeybee population) I came across an article by Canadian investigative journalist Alex Roslin about monocrops and their detrimental effects on world hunger, biodiversity, nutrition, food supplies, water toxicity and soil quality. A sweeping change from traditional farming, with its fallow fields, crop rotation and varied selection of produce, monoculture techniques are not just linked to the transition from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture, but to the widespread shift from family-owned farms to massive industrial farming complexes driven by large corporations.
“peak food is actually related to four other intertwined crises: peak farmable land, peak water, peak oil, and global warming” –‘Monocrops bring food crisis’ by Alex Roslin
The Green Revolution was an attempt to bring monocropping to the third world. Its motivations were ostensibly to adequately feed poor populations and stimulate economic growth, but there was a strong political element: the fight against communism. The West would win over the third world by helping it feed itself, thereby nonviolently stamping out communist agitators. Food was to be a valuable weapon in the Cold War and so American industrialists invested heavily in the Green Revolution.
Mexico, India and the Philippines’s food production grew as a result of the Green Revolution and monocrop farming, but whether it simply strove to feed a growing population in these countries or actually caused overpopulation is a matter of some debate. One strong criticism of monocrop techniques is that they contribute to unsustainable population growth, leading to mass starvation. However, the main issue may not be the amount of food being produced, but rather the variety and quality of the produce. A monocrop culture is genetically weaker than traditional farming and has less biodiversity. It is therefore more vulnerable to being wiped out by disease and pests – requiring more chemical pesticides in attempt to compensate for this risk. Following the economic model of specialization, industrial monocrop farming may be more profitable, yet is also more dependent on trade, globalization, transportation and mass production, whereas traditional polyculture farming evolved to serve the entire nutritional needs of a local population.
Alex Roslin’s article claims that taste and nutritional value in produce has suffered due to monocropping and the amount of chemical pesticides and fertilizers used in the system, as well as the water intensity required, have been environmentally disastrous. Furthermore, countless small independent family farms have been squeezed out by large corporate agriculture.
The BBC World News program Earth Report explores the problems of monoculture vs. the biodiversity of traditional crops in India. The report cites figures from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization stating that the last 100 years have seen the disappearance of 75% of the world’s crop varieties and that wheat, rice and maize (corn) now account for 60% of our calories. Poorer countries depend twice as much on these crops as wealthier ones.
A traditional food source, millet is hardy, nutritious and better adapted to some local soil and water supplies than wheat and rice, yet it largely disappeared in India during the Green Revolution. It can feed a local population well and is dependable, but not yet a cash crop. Millet is also more labor intensive than what is currently being grown in most of the country. There are efforts to reintroduce it to India, but government funding for research and development, plus subsidies and distribution are all far more focused on rice and wheat, giving millet very little chance for resurgence as a popular food source.
So is there a “good old days” of farming that the world should return to, before monocultures and the Green Revolution? A time of clean water, healthy soil, genetic variety and biodiversity? I’m not sure. It certainly doesn’t fit in with the direction in which the majority of the world is heading. But it’s obvious that we’ve gone too far and have sacrificed much on the alter of convenience and economic growth. Perhaps, armed with technology and a knowledge of history, future farmers can employ more polyculture models and work in harmony with nature instead of fighting and ultimately hurting it. Some organic farmers are already doing this today.
By Graham Land