All About Monocultures

When you look in the American pantry, what do you see? Your eyes probably wander to the most colorful cereal box first, or maybe to that tempting bag of chips. Expand your view to your general kitchen, and look around you. Chances are, no matter how diverse the items in your kitchen are, there’s a good chance that many of the items have corn in them, in some fashion. Whether it’s your favorite cereal, snack, maybe even the common ingredient across your whole sandwich, there’s probably some form of corn in your product. 

But that doesn’t mean that this common grown ingredient is sustainable for the environment, and the truth is, it’s not the only crop.Here in America, our biggest agriculture operations operate through monocultures. A monoculture is when one crop is grown and cultivated in a single area. America’s primary monoculture crops are corn, wheat, soybeans, and cotton, which are all crops we enjoy very much. So what’s the problem with enjoying these mass growing operations? 

  1. Well, for one thing, these crops require irrigation in order to sustain proper growth.

    • This is harmful because for an operation this big to have a positive return for all the time, effort, equipment and material, there needs to be adequate irrigation that rain itself cannot guarantee. So we have to drain water from our water tables to supplement our irrigation. With how much water we use, our water tables will eventually run dry, and then we won’t have the water we need to sustain these growing operations.
    • If we dry up the water table, over time, we will have to drill deeper and deeper to reach the water. Draining the water table can degrade water quality in our rivers and streams, and consequently, harm the riparian vegetation as well as the wildlife that relies on these waterways. 
  2. The topsoil is being degraded faster than we can make it up.

    • In order to protect these crops from diseases and pests, the normal gardener just protects the crops with small alternatives here and there. However, on a wide scale operation like these monocultures, it’s nearly impossible to have these small alternatives implemented everywhere. So we have to resort to chemicals and pesticides to ensure the crops grow properly. But this isn’t good for the soil, as these chemicals aren’t organic, which ultimately means that the soil is absorbing all of these chemicals, which can then lead to runoff carrying chemicals into the water. 
    • Furthermore, since the crops are constantly in rotation of being grown and harvested, there’s no chance for the soil to process plants into organic matter.
  3. Healthy Soil is integral to prevent runoff. 

    • Monocultures do not ensure ground crops will be grown to keep the soil together, since everything is being harvested. Without the plants providing organic matter for the soil, the soil won’t be healthy. If the soil isn’t healthy, then it won’t be able to withhold moisture, and with that, the chemicals that we’re spraying on our crops in order to keep them productive will wash away from the soil in the form of water runoff, which washes harmful chemicals into our river and waterways. 

It’s probably obvious now that monocultures aren’t as good as we like to pretend they are. The point is, monocultures are highly problematic agricultural systems that bring a plethora of issues to the environment. All of the issues that monocultures bring are intricate and complex, spanning over several equally complex issues. 

Okay, so now what? What do I do now? 

Obviously, no one is asking for you to go out there and dismantle agricultural operations rooted in monocultures. After all, with all the harmful things that monocultures bring, we have to remember that it isn’t necessarily the fault of these big companies for having to invest all of their time and energy in monocultures. We still greatly benefit off of these monocultures and all they have to offer, and these farmers are hard pressed to make a good salary, too, with how risky farming can be. This isn’t a black and white issue, and I think most farmers would say that they don’t agree with monocultures, but it’s just what works for them. So, what do we do?

Do your research on the fallout of monocultures. 

  • Look to see how monocultures cause issues across the country, as well as looking at the benefits. Ex: The Dead Zone
  • Understand that farmers aren’t the bad guys here, they have to find a way to make a living, too. 

Expand your research beyond just the conversation of monocultures, but towards a conversation of sustainable development.

  • Research farming practices, too, such as Concentrated Agricultural Food Operations.
  • Research food insecurity, and how us growing fields of crops doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to eat. Ex: Irish Potato Famine, Southern Corn Leaf Blight

Support your local farmers. 

  • Even though monocultures may be a good option for farmers to invest in, not all farmers stick to monocultures. Permacultures are the opposite of monocultures. Permacultures are agricultural operations that work to establish a habitat with cohesion, using a variety of plants to sustain the farm.
  • It’s worth it to say that local farmers typically aren’t under the same roof as the farmers that rely on monocultures. Many farmers are actively trying to bridge the gap between the environment and humans.


By: Ross Bryant, published 8.26.2020

Ross is an Environmental Studies and Public Relations Dual Major at Berry College. Ross is a Bonner Scholar at Berry College, and also volunteers for Keep Rome Floyd Beautiful up in Rome, Georgia. Ross recycles cardboard and plastic in order to help be actively sustainable, as well as reuse shopping bags. For the Summer of 2020, follow Ross in his studies in order to become more conscious of sustainable practices.

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