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What is monoculture?

Lily Woods investigates modern agricultural practices

For many of us, we often don't think about where our food is coming from. This may seem ridiculous to those of us choosing to live a vegan lifestyle - and yet, while we may spend time thinking about where our food is not coming from, how many of us really think about how the vegetables we eat are grown? Where do they come from?

Are they grown sustainably? While it must be said that choosing not to eat animals and animal products is an important step in bettering ourselves, our planet and the lives of other creatures who live alongside us, it is becoming increasingly important to consider where other food is coming from, too.

When it comes to the majority of crops, many of them are grown by farmers who use monoculture farming or modern agricultural farming methods. This is a system of farming that enables farmers to grow crops quickly and efficiently, often using entire fields to grow one type of crop, standardising planting, maintenance and harvesting.

Indeed, when matched to the right environment, monoculture methods of farming can be more successful than polyculture farming methods. For some crops such as cereals and wheat, it has been proven to improve their growth and harvest when grown using monoculture methods, or without different crops growing adjacently.

With a fast-growing population that has increased by over one billion since the turn of the century, the demand for food to be grown bigger and faster is pressing.

Due to the advancements in modern agricultural practice, the growth and output of primary crops has predominantly succeeded in matching this demand.

For example, in the last 50 years, the growth of staple crops such as rice and wheat has increased exponentially, both of which have since become key sources of sustenance in emergency food relief packages across the world.

What's more, these methods of farming allow farmers to specialise in one crop, which enables an increased profit while simultaneously reducing costs.

This is because when specialising in the growth of one crop, no additional machinery is required, and when we consider that 8.2 per cent of the world's population is currently living in poverty, with 2020 seeing a rise to 8.8 per cent, affordable food is more important than ever before.

And yet, while monoculture methods of farming are successful in some ways, they are also highly detrimental to our environment. From pest management to excessive water use, modern agricultural farming practices are hurting our planet.

For example, while many farmers using these methods rotate their crop fields once a year or biennially, many still face huge issues with pest infestations.

With their favourite food in one place for an extended period of time, parasites are able to reproduce more effectively and thus destroy far more crops as a result.

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To combat this, many farmers resort to using pesticides. Not only are these particularly harmful to us humans, but they also prove particularly detrimental to the health of both the soil and the groundwater, which in turn has a devastating ripple effect on the surrounding wildlife and ecosystems.

While it must be said that pests and crop growth have long been an issue amongst farmers, the use of polyculture methods of growth oftentimes provided a natural repellent to harmful parasites, and thus reduced the need for pesticide use.

What's more, while one field may be particularly good for growing wheat, for example, agricultural monoculture prohibits this from being the case for long periods of time.

Rather, when one crop is repeatedly planted in the same soil year after year, it upsets the natural balance of nutrients in the earth. This ultimately results in the reduced production of microorganisms and bacteria, both of which are needed for the maintenance of healthy soil.

Continuous planting of the same crop also leads to the soil being unable to absorb sufficient nutrients from water, which has in turn, led to an increase in the use of water by farmers. This means that local sources, such as rivers, lakes, and reservoirs are called upon to meet this demand, having additional consequences upon the ecosystems of these water sources.

While we know that monoculture farming methods have an impact on the surrounding wildlife, what exactly does this mean? For example, for bees and other pollinators, the increased use of pesticides in these farming methods has seen a significant reduction in their population over the past decade.

Together with the fact that some insects thus find themselves in a sea of single-plant fields, and therefore in homogenous food territory, many also suffer from deficiencies as a consequence of a lack of food diversity. Overall, there are a number of positives to monoculture farming, but these are quickly and rather radically outweighed by negatives.

And while it may seem as though the use of monoculture farming practices may be hard to overcome, there are many ways in which farming practices can be altered to ensure that we continue to feed ourselves, while also limiting interference with the surrounding ecosystem.

So, what can be done? Firstly, we can moderate the use of herbicides and pesticides - this is both in our interest, and in the interest of the farmer. Less pesticide use is not only good for our personal health and the health of the environment, but also for the health of the farmer's soil, which will ultimately lead to the yielding of healthier and therefore more profitable crops.

\"When one crop is repeatedly planted in the same soil year after year, it upsets the natural balance of nutrients in the earth\"

Secondly, we can limit the use of water by growing crops nearer to water sources, decreasing the need for groundwater. In this case, the decreased use of pesticides goes handin- hand with the decreased need for water, as the soil will be in better shape to absorb the nutrients it needs from a smaller volume of water.

Indeed, although it may seem an uphill battle in the short-term to make a shift away from monoculture farming methods, smarter agricultural practices will be a success in the long-run - not only for us, but for our planet, too.

And while it may feel as though we, as individuals, are far from being in a position to assume a role in making this change, we are always closer than we think: sign that petition, and where you can, buy organic!

This puts pressure on the right people to change their methods.  It may not seem like it, but changes like these always start with us.

Words by Lily Woods

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VeganLife

The lifestyle magazine written by vegans for vegans.