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A monoculture refers to the repeated cultivation of a single crop on an area of land and describes the practice of relying on a population of plants or animals derived from a single genotype or a very narrow genetic base. This implies an agricultural practice without any crop rotation or mixed intercropping. In forestry it refers to planting of single species tree crops instead of encouraging a diverse canopy of trees, so that biodiversity that would provide a suitable habitat for a number of different species cannot be provided. Monoculture is characterized by the absence of diversity and can occur on various scales: a plot of ground, a natural community, a landscape, or a large geographic region. Its correlative, polyculture, indicates that two are more crops or herds are part of the system, which is also scale dependent. For instance, a peanut field might be regarded as a monoculture, but fruit trees planted as wind breaks make the system a polyculture, as does any system that grazes animals on field stubble to refertilize the soil.
Monocultures in agriculture have been introduced to maximize the productivity of a single crop. Monocultures perpetuate and even exacerbate the general impacts of agriculture on ecosystems, such as narrowing the genetic base of the system by replacing the natural vegetation, destroying habitats for the natural fauna, increasing vulnerability to erosion by the decline of humus content, aggregating stabilities of soils as a consequence of soil tillage and conversion of virgin land, interrupting and simplifying the natural food web, and underutilizing the variety of niches of an ecosystem with subsequent loss of homeostasis and self regulation mechanisms of the system.
The practice of replanting the same species over years leads to additional yield declines that are due to autotoxity and monoculture injury. Explanations for this include: growing the same crop species in the same soil year after year leads selectively to a deficiency in one or more plant nutrients that would not be limiting to other crop species; the crop plant builds up a toxicity to itself, leading to self-inhibition; or, growing the same crop species in the same soil in subsequent years enriches the soilborne pathogens of the roots of those crops. This helps lead to complete crop failures. The most wellknown among these is the Irish potato famine in the beginning of the 20th century, which was due to the expansion of the fungus Phytophtora infestans in potato monocultures.
Nevertheless, about 70 percent of the world’s food crops are grown in monocultures. The world’s agricultural landscapes are planted mostly with some 12 species of grain crops-especially wheat and corn-23 vegetable crop species, and about 35 fruit and nut crop species; that is, no more than 70 plant species cover approximately 1,440 million hectares of presently cultivated land in the world. Reliance on such a small number of crops has reduced the global genetic diversity to an extent that there are fewer and fewer varieties to draw upon for adaptive genes. For instance, in the United States, 60-70 percent of the total bean area is planted with two to three bean varieties, 72 percent of the potato area with four varieties, and 53 percent of the cotton area with three varieties.
Despite the vulnerabilities of monocultures, continuous productivity increases have been achieved through the introduction of improved varieties, mainly promoted by the Green Revolution, accompanied by measures needed to compensate the weaknesses of the system and sustain it, like chemical fertilizer and pesticide inputs, irrigation where farmers have access to supplemental water, hygienic techniques like soil fumigation, and even genetic modifications of organisms.
A well-known argument in relation to biodiversity loss and other negative ecological impacts of monoculture is the land-sparing impact of modern farming practices, which refers to the trade-off of the amount of land that needs to go into production according to different levels of productivity. For example, if yields of the six major crop groups that are cultivated on 80 percent of the total cultivated land area had remained at yield levels farmers achieved in 1961, it would require an additional 1.4 billion hectares of land to meet global food demand in 2004. The key ecological question is therefore whether environmental services other than food production at regional and global scales would be enhanced by focusing food production on less land under intensive management with high yields, versus expanding cultivated area in lower-yielding systems that use farming practices that seek to preserve environmental services at the field and local levels. Although there are many case studies that challenge the productivity argument of the Green Revolution and provide case studies for the high productivity of small-scale farms, mixed cropping, and mixed farming systems, this argument needs further research, since these systems have mainly been neglected by previous research priorities.
Other critical arguments can be summarized as critiques of the mindset behind monoculture and its rationale, which is related to concepts of elimination of diversity not only in regard to nature, but overall. This approach would replace principles of diversity with principles of intolerance and exclusion by prioritizing commercial interests over ecological integration, by ignoring the relation between ecological diversity and the diversity of livelihoods, cultures, and belief systems. This is supported by the fact that the establishment of large-scale monocultures like cotton plantations in the United States, Africa, and India were only possible on the basis of slavery and colonialism, perpetuated by international corporations until today. These corporations externalize harmful side-effects like contamination by chemicals and soil erosions to adjacent areas that are considered peripheries, or to future generations, leaving the farmer without any freedom of choice. For this reason, national action plans of many countries aim at the reduction of monocultures, since there is doubt that sustainable monocultures will ever exist.
- Miguel Altieri, “The Ecological Role of Biodiversity in Agroecosystems,” Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment (v.74, 1999);
- R. Conway and J.N. Pretty, Unwelcome Harvest: Agriculture and Pollution (Earthscan Publications, 1991);
- K. Duraiappah and Shahid Naeem, Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Biodiversity Synthesis (World Resources Institute, 2005);
- V.H. Heywood and T. Watson, Global Biodiversity Assessment (Cambridge University Press, 1995);
- Andrew Kimbrell, , Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture (Foundation for Deep Ecology, 2002);
- Vandana Shiva, Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology (Palgrave MacMillan, 1983).