In last week’s class, we briefly touched on the subject of monocultures. What the concept means in terms of agriculture, what its consequences are for lands used for monoculture crop harvesting purposes. The concept of how the growing of only a single species of plant on its allotted square of land year after year can slowly strip the soil of its ability to yield produce piqued my interest enough that I had to dig a little deeper.
The defense for monoculture farming is pretty straightforward: it is more stable and economically viable to specialize in a specific crop, only buy the equipment necessary to keep that one plant species healthy, than to practice more organic means of farming. But the pros more or less stop here, as monoculture crop farming presents a myriad of issues that have made its practice increasingly problematic in a world looking for more sustainable ways of keeping itself going.
Planting the same crop on the same weary stretch of land year after year exhausts most of the earth’s crop yielding nutrients, leaving it unable to support healthy crop growth. In response, farmers must turn to chemical fertilizers in order to keep achieving results, which only further contributes to the degradation of the land by disrupting the soils natural make up and adds an undeniably risk in terms of human consumption. Since monocultures focus on raising single strains that have been bred for high yield and are resistant to only certain common diseases, if a new sickness should strike it could very easily destroy entire populations of crops. And of course they can’t defend against these, because monoculture crop farming destroys the natural biodiversity of the plant species, leading to row after row of genetically identical clones all equally vulnerable to the same maladies.
Darwin would weep if he could. Profusely.
Monocultures and other large-scale farming operations have also undeniably shaped our culture when it comes to our views on food. Most Americans feel alienated from farming practices and see it as something to be placed in the hands of corporations, industrial produce to be purchased at supermarkets with little idea where it comes from.
Day after day, more information is making the rounds as to why the culture of monocultures needs to be phased out of the food growth business. Science suggests that land planted with many species produces more vegetation than land with one or a few species, which of course means higher returns from land and an increase in its ability to store carbon as biomass, rather than atmospheric carbon dioxide. The production of crops in a more organic polyculture would mean natural variability in the species involved, leading to better resistance to pathogens and less reliance on chemical pesticides. One study in China involved planting several varieties of rice in the same field, which lead to increased rice yields and a radical 94% decrease in the incidence of disease.
During last weeks discussion, I mentioned the final act of a show I’d finished recently called Psycho Pass. In it, the main villain of the series aims to bring down the dystopian society created by Japan’s Sybil System, a mass artificial intelligence network that is able to quantify the human psyche and characterize people instantly between normal citizens and what is eventually an oppressed group of people labeled latent criminals, by attacking the country’s supply of monoculturally grown “Hyper-Oats”. Hyper-Oats were a genetically engineered food crop that acted as a sort of “stem cell” grain, able to be modified into whatever specific form of food needed by the populace. Of course, the hypothetical future government of the series was well aware of the inherent risks of monoculture farming, and created the Uka no Mitama Defense Virus Project which focused its effort in creating a specified virus strain that attacked all forms of bacteria or fungi that could threaten the Hyper-Oats crop, making the species effectively immune to all disease.
Seriously though, this show is bananas. One of my favorites.
The last episode of the series took place at the fully automated Hyper-Oats agricultural factory, at which the villain planned to modify the Uka no Mitama virus strain to attack the plants rather than protect them, a move that would have effectively wiped out the country’s main source of sustenance. This is of course the concept taken to its very hypothetical extreme, but when you take into account how much of our own food is based on corn, it makes you think. In fact, much of the worlds wheat crops are so genetically similar following the Green Revolution, a situation similar to the one detailed in Psycho Pass could very well threaten agricultural productions worldwide.