Updated: Jun 15
Monoculture is damaging the environment, and a solution does exist.
Permaculture by Rabiah Kahol
Agriculture ushered in the birth of modern civilization and has been practised for the past 12,000 years. However, the exponential rise in the human population has put the world’s food systems under tremendous pressure to satiate the increasing demands for food. The solution? Farmers resorted to growing a single species of food crops at a time, to produce a larger yield in a more efficient and profitable manner. Monoculture is the agricultural practice where one kind of crop is cultivated at one time on the entire field. This form of agriculture is one of the most widely debated methods used in modern farming systems. So, why is monoculture such a controversial method? Can it be deemed sustainable for the future of agriculture?
(Also Read: Northeast India Floods—the Anthropocene at work)
Monoculture and its Detriments
Monoculture contributes to soil detriment by exhausting its nutrients. This not only affects the ecosystems but farm economies as well. One of the biggest threats to adopting monoculture is the lack of genetic diversity present and the subsequently lowered resiliency to disease and drought of those crops. Mix vegetation has different root lengths which thus take up nutrients and water from different levels in the soil. The biodiversity of bacteria and soil microbes found in these species replenishes soil nutrients and helps maintain the ecological balance of the soil after decomposition. In comparison, monocultures lack the diversity of soil microbes and varied root length which thus make them more susceptible to droughts, floods, and a lowered water quality. Farmers are forced to use more fertilizers to compensate for the lack of nutrients. This leads to a vicious cycle of the overuse of chemicals which consequently contributes to soil degradation.
Soybean harvesting in Campo Verde, Brazil. Photo by Alf Ribeiro
Given the controversial nature of the operation, monocultures have a larger carbon footprint as compared to that traditional farms. Heavy machinery powered by fossil fuels is often used to harvest monoculture crops. Due to their high yields, these crops are usually exported overseas through the land, air, and sea transportation. These modes of transportation generally rely on oil and gas which are key environmental pollutants.
A Solution: Permaculture
The future of monoculture must be reassessed in order to alleviate the impending ecological disasters which stem from the farming practice. There are methods to shift out of monoculture and adopt a more eco-friendly approach. Agroecology is one such green concept which focuses on nutrient regeneration, recycling biomass, creating favourable conditions for plant growth, water harvesting, and increasing the genetic diversification of land. Agroecology gained momentum in wake of the Green Revolution and has now been widely recognized as means to revamp and greenify our food systems.
One such practice under this concept is permaculture. The idea was propagated in 1970 by the Australian biologist, Bill Morrison and then influenced agricultural systems in India in 1987. Permaculture is a more sustainable approach as it promotes regenerative agriculture, community resiliency, and rewilding. It aims to maintain the health of an ecosystem through the symbiosis of multiple species. Contrary to the concept of monoculture, permaculture avoids the dominance of a single species on the field and also promotes the sustainable use of natural resources. It also encourages the usage of perennial species in order to increase crop adaptability throughout the year and thus, increase the performance of the yield.
Another principle of permaculture is to make the food system as self-sustaining and self-regulating as possible. Incorporating genetic diversity strengthens the crop and also creates a positive loop of nutrient cycling. Unlike traditional farming practices, permaculture farming is non-linear and is rather practised in zones. A permaculture farm can be divided into 5 zones:
Permaculture zones illustration by jandjacres.net
Zone 1: Closest to home, easily accessible, highly intensive system and requires a lot of attention, kitchen gardens, rainwater harvesting tanks, and worm farms
Zone 2: Also intensive but requires a little less attention than Zone 1, small fruit trees, smaller perennial crops like ginger/turmeric, beehives, ponds for fish and ducks, poultry houses
Zone 3: More of a self-sustaining system, does not need routine checkups like Zones 1 and 2, main perennial crop area, livestock rearing such cows and sheep, oak trees, and larger fruit trees
Zone 4: A semi-wild area, wild fruit, and vegetable plants are grown here such as wild strawberries and mushrooms, and trees for wood harvesting, rare interaction with this zone, promotes natural control and regrowth in the ecosystem.
Zone 5: Complete wilderness, does not have any human interaction/control, attracts wildlife, and lets nature take its own course, similar to a wild forest ecosystem.
Thus, this zonal form of permaculture not only stabilizes natural ecosystems but also promotes diversity, self-regulation, and crop resiliency through the growth of perennials and wild species.
Permaculture for India
India is an agrarian society, and a significant percentage of its population depends on agriculture as a means of livelihood. Traditional agricultures like monoculture can adversely affect an agricultural economy due to the precarity of the crop yields and deterioration of the land and water sources. The landscape of food production technology is still nascent, and the prospects are exciting and limitless. In order to reap the benefits of these new production systems, we must implement more eco-friendly ways of cultivating our food now in order to preserve the same platefuls of variety and flavour for the future.
Gould, S., Martin, A., Nierenberg, D., John, J., Churchill, S., Berger, S., . . . Seeley, E. (2021, March 20). Monoculture could make climate change even scarier. Retrieved April 30, 2021, from https://foodtank.com/news/2021/02/monoculture-could-worsen-vulnerability-to-climate-change/