Science Agriculture How Monocropping Harms the Environment Sustainable agriculture offers better alternatives. By David M. Kuchta Writer Wesleyan University, University of California, Berkeley David Kuchta, Ph.D., is a historian, author, gardener, and educator. He has been an environmental activist since the 1970s. After 20 years teaching in academia, he has taught creative writing and been an editor and professional writer for the past seven years. our editorial process David M. Kuchta Updated July 21, 2021 Soybeans as far as the eye can see. Paulo Fridman / Getty Images Share Twitter Pinterest Email Science Space Natural Science Technology Agriculture Energy In 2020, two crops—corn (maize) and soybean—accounted for 70% of the planted farmland in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is monocropping (or monoculture), the planting of a single crop in the same patch of land year after year. The term monocropping can be used to describe many agricultural practices—not just crop production, but forestry, aquaculture (fishing), dairying, ranching, and even lawn care. For example, an individual lawn (which in essence is a monocropped landscape) might not take up much space, but collectively turfgrass is the most irrigated crop in the United States. Monocropping is a form of industrial agriculture with some short-term benefits but long-term (and some short-term) costs, making it far from sustainable. The Pros and Cons of Monocropping Monocropping has its origins in the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, which (despite its name) began with the introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, the development of new, high-yield cereal grains, and the growing use of large farm machinery such as tractors and irrigation systems. The Green Revolution resulted in a reduction of labor costs, the doubling of grain yields, the more than doubling of the world's population, and a Nobel Peace Prize for its main proponent, Norman Borlaug, for lifting millions of people out of poverty and creating food self-sufficiency for nations such as Mexico and India. Yet doubling food production through monocropping on the same amount of land results in depleting the soil of its micronutrients—starving the soil that feeds the people—a limiting factor in increasing yields any further as the world population continues to grow. Loss of Diversity in Food and Culture Frans Sellies / Getty Images While the most biodiversity on the planet exists in the places with the highest levels of human diversity, monocropping reduces cultural diversity. With its economy of scale, monocropping means fewer family farms and increasing financial burdens on those that remain, resulting in a loss of numerous local cultures worldwide. That decline in diversity is accompanied by a loss of food diversity. For example, industrial fish farms in the West African country of the Gambia have polluted rivers and the ocean, destroyed wild fish stocks, and deprived local fishing communities of their livelihoods and Gambians of their dietary mainstays. Worldwide, more than 50% of the human diet is composed of just three crops—rice, maize, and wheat—leading to diet imbalances and malnutrition. Despite its promise, monocropping did not solve the problem of food insecurity, as world hunger continues to rise. Monocropping and Climate Change Drbouz / Getty Images While monocropping can lead to higher crop yields, it requires annual inputs of chemical fertilizers to counteract soil depletion, but those chemical applications (accompanied by annual plowing using heavy machinery) break down the biological relationships within soils that are necessary for healthy plant growth. Chemical fertilizers and wasteful irrigation can lead to runoff that pollutes waterways and damages ecosystems. As a less diverse landscape attracts a narrower variety of birds and beneficial insects, monocropping also makes it harder to combat harmful pests and diseases and increases the need for chemical pesticides and fungicides. Methane emissions (a potent greenhouse gas) from fertilizer manufacturing are an estimated 3.5 times higher than the U.S. EPA's estimate of methane emissions for all industrial processes in the United States. Not only does monocropping contribute to climate change; it also makes it harder for agricultural systems to adapt to it, leaving them more susceptible to droughts, blights, extreme weather, pest infestations, and invasive species. Alternatives to Monocropping Interplanted crops on the slopes of Mount Elgon, Uganda. Michele D'Amico supersky77 / Getty Images By contrast, sustainable practices like regenerative agriculture and agroforestry allow soils to retain moisture, allow croplands to attract beneficial insects and birds that prey on harmful ones, reduce soil erosion, increase food sovereignty, improve diets and nutrition, reduce reliance on expensive inputs, and allow farmers to stay on their land. On a smaller scale, instead of a lawn, more sustainable practices as simple as a perennial garden or wildflower meadow give habitats to pest predators and pollinators and can be adapted to many more climates than a single crop can. Crop diversity is also a key strategy in adapting to climate change, as a wider variety of crops returns carbon to the soil and increases the sustainability of the ecosystems we all depend on. Just as crucial is preserving the many local and indigenous cultures and agricultural practices that can contribute knowledge about traditional and innovative alternatives to industrial agriculture, fostering millennial-old relationships to the Earth might end what Leah Penniman, a food justice activist and regenerative farmer, calls “our estrangement from the soil.” As Penniman so succinctly puts it, “Nature abhors a monoculture.” View Article Sources C. Milesi, S.W. Running, C.D. Elvidge, J.B. Dietz, B.T. Tuttle, R.R. Nemani. “Mapping and modeling the biogeochemical cycling of turf grasses in the United States.” Environmental Management, 36 (3) (2005), pp. 426-438. Jacques, Peter J. and Jessica Racine Jacques. “Monocropping Cultures into Ruin: The Loss of Food Varieties and Cultural Diversity.” Sustainability 4:11 (2012): 2970-2997. DOI:10.3390/su4112970. MacDonald, James M. Robert A. 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Na, Xiasfan, et al. “Monocropping decouples plant–bacteria interaction and strengthens phytopathogenic fungi colonization in the rhizosphere of a perennial plant species.” Plant and Soil 445, 1-2 (December 2019): 549-564. DOI:10.1007/s11104-019-04311-7. Grasswitz, Tessa R. "Effects of Soil Biology on Plant Health and Resistance to Pests and Diseases." Washington State University. Xiaochi Zhou, et al. “Estimation of methane emissions from the U.S. ammonia fertilizer industry using a mobile sensing approach.” Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene 7:5 (2019). DOI: http://dx.doi.org.une.idm.oclc.org/10.1525/elementa.358 Sainju, Upendra. “A Global Meta-Analysis on the Impact of Management Practices on Net Global Warming Potential and Greenhouse Gas Intensity from Cropland Soils.” PloS One. 11, 2 (February 2016). 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