Monocultures. You have seen them before , whether its orange groves, strawberry fields, sugar cane, or even St. Augustine sod, the thoughts that come to mind are vast expanses of the same plant, usually for food production. Growing up in the Plant City area, I spent much of my youth running and playing in crops. It wasn’t until my mid twenties that I realized the truly heinous state of affairs that had been hiding from me in plain sight. I doubt many of us gave it much thought back then and sadly today it isn’t that different. Monocultural farming practices are ruining our soil and turning once fertile areas into damaged and depleted dirt. In short, monocultures are bad. It’s unsustainable and ecologically unethical. All those childhood memories, now tainted with that knowledge… but why should you care about monoculture farming practices or my obsessive childhood reappraisal?
Well, you should give a damn and here is why! If we don’t reverse this unsustainable trend by mid-century, we as a species, will likely be confronted with a global food crisis that will negatively impact every facet of our lives. Simply put, there will be too many people and not enough food, if we continue managing our land in this manner. Current agricultural methods are a classic example of man’s reach exceeding his vision. To understand the solution, you have to understand the problem, so let’s break down the issues that monoculture farming creates.
Monoculture farming requires large areas of land to be cleaned of all species other than the desired crop. This leads to loss of biodiversity, massive habitat fragmentation and severe reduction ecological functions of natural areas. The topsoil is usually stripped of the beneficial organisms that facilitate plants absorbing nutrients, making the soil far less fertile. To keep the soil productive, vast quantities of chemical fertilizers are then added to the now depleted land. This then promotes the growth of all plants, even the unwanted ones. Herbicides are added after and used to control the undesirable species, leaving the monoculture more susceptible to plant pests and disease, which are treated with pesticides and fungicides at a seemingly indiscriminate rate. As you can see this creates a domino effect of needed chemical control and of course, all of these substances drain through our watersheds and pollute all bodies of water. Now we are even modifying the crops with withstand herbicides, so that our food can now absorb all of the poisons we use to feed ourselves. And if that’s not bad enough, many invasive plants form monocultures themselves that we don’t want and we spend millions and millions a year, in an often vain attempt, to control them! The end result of all of our time, effort, and resources invested , has been a reduction in yields and a decline in overall food quality and safety.
The solution to this problem is rooted in a time when humans worked in concert with nature to sustain themselves and it’s referred to as polyculture. Polyculture farming practices (companion planting) utilize a variety of species that maximize the beneficial relationship of plants, animals and fungi. The native indians knew this and often used planting combinations such as “The Three Sisters” which were beans, corn and squash. The corn provides carbohydrates, the dried beans are rich in protein ad fixes the nitrogen in the soil, balancing the lack of necessary amino acids found in corn. Finally, squash yields both vitamins from the fruit and healthful oil from the seed. The corn also provides a natural structure for the beans to grow upon and the squash a natural mulch. Poyculute farming results in more productive soil, with no need for tilling. Tilling is also depleting our soil as it rips out all pre existing root systems and disturbs the nutrients meant to stay on the top layer for optimal growing results. Polycultures promotes natural plant defenses and provides habitat for plant pest predators. When planned accordingly, polycultural techniques can result in less soil erosion and nutrient depletion, less watershed contamination and reduces or eliminates the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Polyculture is the only viable method that is productive enough and sustainable enough to feed our growing population and to correct the degradation we have caused on land.