GET THE FACTS: MONOCULTURE AND INDUSTRIAL FARMING
When you walk around a supermarket, it may seem as if we have an incredibly diverse cornucopia of foods to eat in the modern world. However, when you look at the big picture of food production, that diversity is an illusion.
The world has as many as 300,000 different edible plant species. But according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, humans get 75% of their food supply from just 12 of them.
Three crops - rice, corn and wheat - make up 60% of the calories and proteins that humans obtain from plant sources. When it comes to meat, eggs and dairy products, 15 mammal and bird species make up 90% of our livestock production.
It wasn’t always that way. But in the modern world, the way we produce food has changed. Monoculture, which involves growing single crops over large areas of land year after year, has become a dominant practice in modern industrial agriculture. For example, about 80 million acres in the U.S. - an area twice the size of New York state - are planted with corn.
To some, monoculture seems like the most efficient way to produce food for a growing world population. But it’s taking an environmental toll that’s contributing to mass extinctions.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, growing the same crop every year - instead of rotating crops - quickly depletes the nutrients in the soil that plants rely upon. That requires big farms to use a lot of synthetic fertilisers. Also, they need to use a lot of herbicides and pesticides, because monoculture fields are really attractive to certain insect pests and weeds.
Dowsing the environment with all those chemicals is bad for local populations and birds, animals and beneficial insects, and hurts biodiversity.
One reason: Monoculture fields are intensely managed to remove as many plants that aren’t crops as possible, including plants that animals eat to survive.
As ecologist Manu Saunders notes, huge monoculture farms create barriers that prevent wildlife from moving freely to find food or shelter.
Heavy use of herbicides in monoculture, for example, is destroying the milkweed plants upon which the caterpillars that turn into monarch butterflies depend upon as their sole source of food.
Also, a study published in the journal Science in 2014 found that monoculture in Central America had led to a higher extinction rate for bird species. And some scientists and environmentalists say that the use of pesticides called neonicotinoids in monoculture is destroying bees and other pollinators.
Monoculture farming is helping to create a world that’s less hospitable for a variety of plants and animals. And that’s contributing to a future in which we may not have bumblebees or butterflies.
HOW CAN YOU MAKE A DIFFERENCE?
#01. DON'T WASTE FOOD
One reason monoculture has become so entrenched is that we consume huge amounts of food, in part because we waste so much of it. If you and 10 friends can cut your food waste to zero for a year, you’ll prevent the methane equivalent of about a ton of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere. (A ton of rubbish generates about 0.3937 metric tons of CO2 equivalent in methane. If the average person wastes about 182.5 pounds of food per year, the number works out - although this is a rough calculation.)
#o2. EAT FEWER PROCESSED FOODS
If it comes in a box or a plastic container and it’s already prepared, it could contain GMO ingredients grown on monoculture farms. In the EU, companies are legally obliged to label GMO foods on packaging, or on signage next to loose products. But why not cook your own food from scratch, from a more diverse range of ingredients? It’ll taste better too.
#03. GROW YOUR OWN VEG
Having an allotment gives you a chance to get out in the air for some healthy exercise, and you’ll get to know your neighbours too. Alternatively, add a raised bed to your garden for, potatoes, beans, strawberries and rhubarb. No outside space? You could even grow your own herbs or bush-variety tomatoes in a window box.
#04. SHOP LOCAL
Support your local small farmer. If you shop at your area's organic farmer’s market, you can buy foods that are in-season, grown by someone who practices crop rotation and doesn’t use a lot of chemicals that harm insects and animals. Numerous studies show that organic farms support significantly more biodiversity, and have a greater range of plants, birds, mammals, earthworms, spiders, beetles, bees and butterflies. Also, because the food isn’t shipped long distances, you’re helping to reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, another factor in extinction.