What Is Monoculture?
The term monoculture is used to describe a situation or arrangement that is characterized by a low level of diversity. Primarily, monoculture refers to the agricultural practice of growing and cultivating a single plant or animal species. This practice means that a low number of genetic variation is present across a farm or crop. Commercial agricultural companies and farms rely on monoculture on a much higher scale than subsistence farmers, which tends to depend on a large variety of crops within a single area. In fact, the vast majority of commercial farms within the US, for example, focus on raising and cultivating a single crop. Corn and soy are the most common plant choices for these organizations. Monoculture has both advantages and disadvantages associated with its use. This article takes a closer look at both the pros and the cons of monoculture as an agricultural practice.
The Advantages Of Monoculture
Monoculture has become popular with commercial farmers because it delivers a number of benefits to its users. Some of the advantages of this farming practice are discussed below.
Allows For Specialization
When a farmer or commercial agricultural business practices monoculture, it allows the organization to specialize in a specific crop or livestock. In economic terms, specialization results in a large advantage for the practitioner and its economy. The benefit of specialization comes from the fact that it permits the increase of profits and the decrease of costs. In other words, specialization is one of the best approaches to achieve profit maximization, which is the goal of the vast majority of for-profit businesses. How does monoculture make profit maximization possible? This agricultural practice produces larger-than-average crop harvest outputs by utilizing fewer resources (like pest control, for example) than a traditional farm might use.
In terms of knowledge, specialization allows farmers or agricultural businesses to spend time and energy learning about just one specific species. An agricultural worker with specialized knowledge is able to improve upon cultivation techniques, disease and pest eradication methods, and harvest maximization. These improvements might be more difficult for an individual who can only learn very basic information about several types of plants.
Additionally, monoculture maximizes efficient use of soil and local climate conditions. In most instances, farmers and agricultural enterprises select the crop that will grow best in the available environment. This maximization of efficiency is seen in such monoculture crops as rice, which is grown in wetland-like conditions, and wheat, which is grown in flat areas with ample sunlight. Plants that can resist or thrive in conditions like drought, wind, and colder average temperatures become the focal point of these agricultural endeavors. In contrast, a traditional farmer is concerned with crop variety and will incorporate a complex planting, maintenance, and harvesting schedule in order to maximize output of several crops. Despite this increased effort, the output is not comparable to that of monoculture crops.
In addition to specialization and maximization of efficiency, monoculture simplifies cultivation. Simply put, harvesting a monoculture crop is easier and less complicated than harvesting a traditionally grown crop. Only one soil preparation technique is utilized, for example. The same is true of irrigation and pest control.
The Disadvantages Of Monoculture
In addition to the previously mentioned advantages of monoculture agricultural practices, this approach to crop growth and harvest also has a number of disadvantages. The cons of monoculture are discussed below.
Eliminates Biological Controls
One of the major disadvantages of monoculture practices is that it eliminates biological controls. A biological control is the function that a specific plant or animal species has in a particular environment, which helps keep population sizes in check. Additionally, biological controls keep nutrients in the soil balanced and replenished. Monoculture upsets this natural balance. Too many of the same species of plants in one area strips the soil of these nutrients, which results in decreased varieties of bacteria and microorganisms. Producing one single plant species over a large area also has a negative effect on the structure of the underlying soil. One plant species means that only one type of root will be available to trap moisture and prevent erosion, a job that typically requires several types of roots.
Contaminates The Soil And Groundwater
As previously mentioned, monoculture depletes the available nutrients found in the soil. Not only does the soil suffer the loss of microorganisms and bacteria and become more susceptible to erosion, but it also suffers more severe contamination. This contamination is caused by the farmer or agricultural company itself through the increased use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.
A monoculture crop is at a greater risk of being decimated by blight or pests because these threats are able to move through the area faster due to its reduced biodiversity. In response, farmers apply higher amounts of pesticides and herbicides in order to protect the crop. These chemicals seep into the ground, contaminating both the soil and its groundwater. In the same way, farmers are forced to use increased amounts of fertilizer in response to the depleted soil nutrients caused by monoculture crops. Excess fertilizer is also significantly damaging to soil and groundwater health.
Increases The Need For Water
As previously mentioned, monoculture agriculture means an area has only one species of plant. The root systems of this one plant species are not enough to maintain the structure of the soil around the crop, which can result in erosion and lost water absorption. Because of this, the soil around monoculture crops is often lacking the important layer of topsoil, which causes the chain reaction of more water and rain runoff. In order to combat this loss of water, farmers must use massive amounts of water via irrigation. This increased need for water means that local sources, such as lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, are being depleted to meet the immediate demand. This depletion has additional negative consequences for the ecosystems within these water sources.
Depends On Fossil Fuels
In most subsistence farming practices, the crop is grown and harvested to feed a family or local community. In monoculture crop practices, however, the crop is being produced for commercial purposes. This commercial intent means that once the crop is harvested, it will be transported across long distances to a large number of destinations. In many cases, these destinations are even international, thus adding to the number of transportation miles. This transportation (whether land vehicle or ocean vessel) relies heavily on fossil fuels such as oil and gas.
Additionally, due to the sheer size of most monoculture crops, harvesting and packaging for sale relies on machinery, which is also a large consumer of fossil fuels. The use of fossil fuels is considered one of the major contributors of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These greenhouse gases have been linked to global climate change.
About the Author
Amber is a freelance writer, English as a foreign language teacher, and Spanish-English translator. She lives with her husband and 3 cats.
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