Monoculture vs. Biodiversity
100 years ago, farmers fostered biodiversity on their farms. Always at the mercy of the weather, they would plant several varieties of wheat or corn in the hopes that one (or more) would survive whatever Mother Nature dealt out. They would plant cover crops to suppress weeds and increase soil fertility. They raised animals and would use the manure from those animals as fertilizer. It took a lot of extra care to produce such a variety of food, but it was the best way to ensure long-term success. And they didn’t produce nearly as much food per acre as today’s farmers do.
Today only 12 plants provide 75% of the food we eat in the Western world. Modern farmers are relying more and more on monoculture farming techniques. That’s where they plant hundreds of acres of a
single variety crop. It’s great for them. They don’t have to worry about which variety needs extra minerals or needs to be planted earlier or later than other varieties. They can get into their huge tractors and travel through all 640 acres of a section of land without ever having to change implements. Harvesting is also much easier with a monoculture.
But monoculture is a magnet for pests. Instead of wading through a variety of plants to find their favorite food, pests have a whole smorgasbord of their favorite foods right in front of them with no barriers. So farmers have to spray pesticides to stop pests from eating everything.
In monocultural fields, fungus and disease also have plenty of room to romp around unimpeded. So farmers have to spray to prevent the spread of disease.
What’s not to like?
So today’s farmers are producing more and cheaper food. But it’s not without consequences. One of the biggest consequences is a shrinking biodiversity. As food has become more abundant, the variety of food has diminished.
Resilience through diversity
Look at nature. The ecosystems that have the greatest diversity are the one that thrive, even during adversity. At any single time plants and animals are at risk from bad weather, pest and disease infestation, lack of nutrients, drought, etc. Pests and disease can eradicate a vulnerable plant variety. But if there are several varieties, the chances are greater that at least one of them will survive.
The Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800’s is a good example of what happens when we have a limited variety of plants. Within 200 years of being introduced to Ireland, potatoes became the major food source of most Irish people. Since potatoes are propagated by cutting and planting the eyes from last year’s crop (which pretty much amounts to cloning the potatoes), they
soon had just a handful of varieties of potatoes Then the potato blight fungus spread throughout the country in 1845-1847. And because the few varieties that they relied on were all susceptible to this fungus, there was an almost complete failure of the potato crop. As a result, an estimated 1 million people died of starvation and the resulting cascading illnesses like cholera and typhoid.
Biodiversity = better nutrition
Today’s plant breeders are developing plants with two factors in mind: uniformity and arrive-ability. Producers want the vegetables to all have a relatively uniform appearance. All the tomatoes need to be the same shape, all the lemons need to weigh about the same, all the lettuce has to have the same color. AND they have to withstand the rigors of mechanical harvesting, sorting, packaging and shipping, arriving in the grocery store none the worse for wear.
The result is food today has very little flavor and the nutritional content has plummeted. 70 years ago a woman could eat two peaches and get her daily
recommended dose of Vitamin A. Today, she would need to eat 53 peaches to get the same nutrition. That’s why Nutrition is #2 reason for gardening on my list of Top Ten Reasons to Garden.
A disaster just waiting to happen
So, as we allow those producing our food—plant breeders, seed producers, farmers and food manufacturers—to shrink the diversity of fruits and vegetables available to the consumer, we are writing the script for our own modern day Potato Famine. Today’s monocultural farming is a disaster waiting to happen. Just one breakdown in the chain—pests or disease that become resistant to current chemical treatments, bad weather, a regional drought, a breakdown in the supply of chemical herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers—any one of these things could wipe out crops and create serious food shortages.
What can you do about it?
If you are concerned about the shrinking diversity of our food and its impact on our environment, there are some things you can do.
First: Plant a garden. Don’t just plant the seeds and plants found in the big-box stores. The big box stores are part of the problem. Get your seeds and plants from suppliers committed to sustainable agriculture. Look for unusual or rare varieties. Choose heirlooms. Heirlooms varieties are never boring and often taste and perform better than what the big-box stores would have you buy.
Second: Know your farmer. That’s not always possible, so if you can’t personally know your farmer, join or buy from a food co-op or local supplier who is committed to sustainable agriculture.
Third: Buy organic. As organic certification has come under the auspices of the USDA, it has lost some of its meaning. The USDA’s guidelines for organic are not as stringent as the organic standards of the 80’s and early 90’s. As farmers are racing to join the organic bandwagon, testing has sometimes been inadequate. The USDA will often grant exemptions that allow a farmer to say his food is organic when it is not. But even so, buying organic is sending a message to producers that you are concerned about the environmental, health and economic impact of conventional farming.
Fourth: Tell others. Most people have never given biodiversity a thought when they go to buy food. So tell them. Show them this chart how our food varieties are so limited today. Tell them how the nutritional content of our food–even fresh fruits and vegetables–is so poor. Spread the word.