Monoculture is defined as:
“ . . . the cultivation or growth of a single crop or organism especially on agricultural or forest land . . .”Source – Extract: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/monoculture
Put simply, specialising in growing just crops (particularly just one type of crop) or livestock over a long period of time, results in the draining or addition of too much of a particular element(s) which throws out the natural balance in the soils thereby breaking the symbiotic relationship between plants, animals and microorganisms.
The modern method of combating this imbalance is to add fertilisers to the soil as well as use pesticides and herbicides to control the pests and weeds, which in turn, compounds the problem.
In this article we will explore
- Why we practice Monoculture
- What is Soil?
- Monoculture & the Devastation to the Soil – the World’s Largest Carbon Sink
- Carbon – the Foundation of Healthy, Organic Soils
- What happens when there is too much Nitrogen in the Soil?
- What happens when there is too much Phosphorus in the Soil?
- So what Physical Affects has Monoculture had on the Landscape?
- Permaculture as a Solution
So why do we practice Monoculture ?
Since the Industrial Revolution began c 1760’s, monoculture has become increasingly prevalent throughout our landscapes whether it be in agriculture, the re-establishment of logged forests, or even in our suburban gardens.
Monoculture enabled the profiteering and globalisation of the agricultural industry. It required less effort and fewer tools. Monoculture proved to be neater, more efficient and hence more profitable, however, over time, as the biodiversity of the landscape became devastated, increasing amounts of chemicals and water are required to maintain the crop – stock – garden until nothing seemed to work anymore . . .
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, permaculture was the adopted method of agriculture. However, the Industrial Revolution lead to explosive population growth, with the majority gathering in growing towns rather than rural farms. With the growth came the increased demands for food as well as higher quality foods such as meat and dairy.
To meet these demands, enterprising entrepreneurs moved ever closer to commercialising agriculture. In order to increase profits and efficiency, it shifted increasingly from organic to inorganic processes and materials. Fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides were devised to counter the affect of monoculture. Genetically modified plants and animals were “adjusted” to grow quickly, look great and ship well – little emphasis was placed on the nutritional quality of the produce. Livestock began feeding on grains rather than grasses – many caged and kept in horrifically inhumane circumstances. But it was all about the money . . .
Machines were invented to plough, harvest, spread fertilisers, pack and transport the goods – throughout the country and around the World. In Australia, it is cheaper to buy oranges from Egypt than from your own country!!
” . . . Australian citrus growers have been the subject of unfair competition from dumped produce both fresh fruit and juice. The complexity, reaction time and cost to mount anti-dumping cases have left Australian growers suffering the damage from the dumped fruit and juice. We have seen Egyptian navels selling on our domestic market for less than the cost of our and surely their production, this pushes the market price for all oranges down further . . . “Source – Extract: Request for Inquiry Review of the Citrus Industry in 2013 by a 4th Generation Citrus Grower
The result saw farmers bulldozing their healthy and productive trees as they just could not compete with the cheap imports that were not subject to the stringent controls of local growers . . .
Chemicals artificially ripened fruit, refrigeration keeps produce fresh. Marketing convinced the consumer that looks are so much more important than nutrition. It persuaded the populace that buying aged, coolstore, tasteless produce was so much better than growing your own!!
Sales soared and profits roared as plants, animals and all that sustained them were treated as replaceable commodities.
As we move into the 21st Century, however, we bear witness to the devastation of this greed and attempted manipulation of Mother Nature. Biodiversity is disappearing on a grand scale and with it many of the natural biological controls such as birds, insects, bacteria, fungi, accessible minerals and trace elements, etc. that once worked together to ensure a balance is maintained. The soil is turning to dust as recently witnessed in Australia when dust events turned day to night during ferocious wind storms that hurled the topsoil, unhindered into the atmosphere.
As increasingly intense weather events begin to threaten agriculture, monoculture is being reassessed resulting in many farmers returning the practice of sustainable agriculture → permaculture.
The main cause of soil infertility in these modern times is: Monoculture coupled with the overuse of fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and chemicals:
As demonstrated in the graph above, Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium based fertilisers have been extensively used for many decades now – on our farms and in our gardens. The downside to this convenient method of nourishing our crops and gardens is that too much of a good thing always leads to excesses, which in this case, has resulted in the death of our soils.
What is Soil?
The construct on which we reside is soil. Soil is a mixture of mineral and organic matter in a huge variety of forms that work symbiotically to create, recycle and maintain life on Earth.
Without healthy soil, there is no life . . .
The synergistic relationship between a healthy soil and the atmosphere, waterways and all living things ensure the wholesome interaction with:
- the atmosphere where soils continuously emit and absorb gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, etc.
- water, in that soils retain, filter and release purified water before it reaches waterways
- organic matter which improves the soil’s physical support and structure thereby increasing biodiversity
- nutrients, including carbon, ensuring their availability to all lifeforms
- carbon, which it stores in great quantities.
” . . . The degradation of soils from unsustainable agriculture and other development has released billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. But new research shows how effective land restoration could play a major role in sequestering CO2 and slowing climate change . . . “Source – Extract: Judith D Schwartz, Author
Healthy soils are composed of minerals, water, air, organic matter and countless organisms that busily recycle decaying matter. This, in turn, supports plant and animal life. The key, is balance and diversity.
Monoculture, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides have degraded the soils to such an extent that they cannot hold moisture → are no longer teaming with life → are overpopulated with Nitrogen and Phosphorus → ultimately turning to dust.
Monoculture & the Devastation to the Soil – the World’s Largest Carbon Sink
The largest carbon storage sink on Earth is soil. It is estimated that:
” . . . The Earth’s soils contain about 2,500 gigatons of carbon—that’s more than three times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and four times the amount stored in all living plants and animals . . . “Source – Extract: Can Soil Help Combat Climate Change?
Increasing practices of monoculture, especially since the 1940’s, have resulted the loss of between 50 to 70% of the soil’s carbon storage sink, releasing it into the atmosphere. It begs the question that perhaps the devastating increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is due to agriculture practices as much as the more recognised pollutants such as deforestation, fossil fuels, transport and industry.
“ . . . According to Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, the world’s cultivated soils have lost between 50 and 70 percent of their original carbon stock, much of which has oxidized upon exposure to air to become CO2 . . . “Source – Extract: Soil as Carbon Storehouse
Permaculture is all about adding organic matter back into the soils. One of the more uncomplicated solutions to decreasing Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere could well be as simple as reintroducing permaculture into agriculture.
Carbon – the Foundation of Healthy, Organic Soils
Interestingly, Carbon makes up approximately 58% of the mass of organic matter. The purpose of organic Carbon in the soil is to provide structure and hence, greater physical stability. With increased stability comes improved biology, aeration, as well as water drainage and retention properties which in turn, reduces the probability of erosion and nutrient leaching.
Carbon, is the most important, and, the key element to life itself. It is returned to the soil via organic matter (the base ingredient of permaculture) as well as by the process of photosynthesis. Essentially, photosynthesis is the food production centre of the plant kingdom. The process traps light energy from the Sun in the leaves, which converts water and carbon dioxide into a sugar called glucose. Glucose is an energy source for plants and is also used to synthesise cellulose and starch which promote growth and strength.
” . . . Carbon is critical to soil function and productivity, and a main component of and contributor to healthy soil conditions. Soil management plays a critical role in whether the carbon remains in the soil or is released to the atmosphere. Agricultural practices can impact both the amount and the composition of soil organic carbon and hence also the soil’s physical, biological, and chemical condition, the combination of things that defines soil health. Farm practices that affect carbon therefore impact agricultural productivity and resilience (the soil’s ability to deal with weather extremes) and the carbon cycle itself . . . “Source – Extract: The Carbon Cycle and Soil Organic Carbon – Cornell University – Agronomy Fact Sheet Series – Fact Sheet 91
The Carbon in soil once was, and can again, be a renewable and sustainable resource. The addition of organic matter and beneficial microbes to soils, can restart and stimulate the soil cycles, especially those that have been disrupted by use of monoculture, fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides.
What happens when there is too much Nitrogen in the Soil?
Interesting, our atmosphere is composed of almost 80% Nitrogen!
However plants (apart from legumes) and animals are unable to process atmospheric Nitrogen. They acquire this essential element by eating plants and animals that themselves have consumed vegetation rich in Nitrogen. Without the mineral, Nitrogen, cells and therefore organisms cannot synthesize amino acids for proteins, nor nucleic acids for DNA and RNA → the basic and essential building blocks of life itself . . .
Nitrogen was traditionally added to the soil via the application of manures and rich composts, as well as engaging the assistance of Legumes which, together with Rhizobium and Bradyrhizobium bacteria, symbiotically fix atmospheric Nitrogen into the soil. Nitrogen in these forms are readily available for plants to consume.
Examples of Nitrogen fixing plants are: acacias (e.g. Wattles), alfalfa, peas, beans, clover . . .
However, since the early 1900’s nitrogen-based fertilisers have increasingly dominated the addition of Nitrogen to the soils. Hindsight has witnessed that only a minute amount of this Nitrogen actually converts into plant matter → the rest accumulates in the soil, runs into dams, creeks, rivers, lakes and oceans, or, seeps into groundwater causing ecological devastation.
Soils saturated in Nitrogen generally cause plants to concentrate all their energy to leaf growth resulting in weak stems, lack of flowers and fruiting, leaf and root burn, as well as attracting of non-beneficial insects and disease → ultimately leading to crop failure.
Excess Nitrogen in the water causes the over stimulation of aquatic plant and algae growth which results in the suffocation of aquatic life as the decomposing matter consumes the dissolved oxygen, blocks light and clogs waterways.
“ . . . Today, we’ve nearly doubled the natural rate of nitrogen available in soils. An estimated 1/3 of global food production is made possible by its use, with 100 million tons applied to Earth’s surface annually. But its use has come at a price. When nitrogen fertilizer is applied faster than plants can use it, soil bacteria convert it to nitrate. Water-soluble nitrate is flushed out of soils in runoff, where it pollutes groundwater, streams, estuaries, and coastal oceans. In farming communities, it’s not uncommon for nitrate to render drinking wells unusable.
In streams and rivers, as on land, nitrate encourages plant growth. When aquatic plants die, their decomposition strips oxygen from the water, causing fish and shellfish kills. At the mouth of the Mississippi River, in the Gulf of Mexico, agricultural pollution has resulted in a dead zone the size of New Jersey . . . “Source – Extract: The Downside of Nitrogen Fertiliser
What happens when there is too much Phosphorus in the Soil?
Essentially, there are two forms of phosphorus in the soil: organic and inorganic. Generally, the organic form is more accessibly to plants whereas the mineral based inorganic phosphorus derived from fertilisers, is less so.
” . . . Soils high in organic matter contain considerable amounts of organic phosphorus that are mineralized (similar to organic nitrogen), and provide available phosphorus for plant growth. In addition to supplying phosphorus, organic matter also acts as a chelating agent and combines with iron, thereby preventing the formation of insoluble iron phosphates. Heavy applications of organic materials such as manure, plant residues or green manure crops to soils with high pH values not only supply phosphorus, but upon decomposition, provide acidic compounds, which increase the availability of mineral forms of phosphorus in the soil . . . “Source – Extract: Managing Phosphorus
Phosphorus is a vital mineral which supports the energy production and storage functions of living things without which, plants and animals cannot survive. Metabolic processes such as photosynthesis, energy transfer, synthesis and breakdown of carbohydrates all rely on Phosphorus.
However, excess Phosphorus in the soil essentially “locks-up” Nitrogen and many other crucial metals and minerals such as Zinc, Iron, Cobalt, Calcium and Manganese, rendering them inaccessible to plants.
Some symptoms of these deficiencies include:
- Phosphorus deficiency presents as stunted growth with a dark purple discolouring of older leaves
- A Zinc deficiency presents as bleaching of plant tissue
- Low Iron causes yellowing between the leaf veins
- Lack of Cobalt severely weakens plant stem growth, elongation of shoot tips and leaf expansion
- A Calcium deficiency can be identified when as blossom end rot presents on tomatoes.
“ . . . Phosphorus inhibits the growth of mycorrhizae which help the plant absorb water and nutrients. Increased growth of non-mycorrhizal weeds such as velvetleaf, lambsquarters, pigweed and galinsoga can be sign of excess P, explained Klaas Martens at MOFGA’s 2009 Spring Growth Conference . . . “Source – Extract: Soil Tests & High Phosphorus Levels
So what Physical Affects has Monoculture had on the Landscape?
The exploitation of monoculture farming with its excessive use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides has dispensed a huge toll on the quality and health of our top soil. Once fertile lands are now barren and dry. Without protection, balance and organic matter, the soil’s inability to hold moisture intensifies as heatwaves, drought, flood and wind events ravage the land. The evidence of climate change, desertification, biodiversity loss, droughts, floods, wildfires, rural poverty, malnutrition, decreasing motivation and obesity are just some of the effects of the mass production of “fresh” foods, which have been designed to store and transport well, rather than provide the nutritional value we all need and crave.
” . . . Since the beginnings of recorded history, societies have understood that human activities can deplete soil productivity and the ability to produce food (McNeill and Winiwarter 2004). Only in recent history has the understanding of soil productivity been tied to SOM [Soil Organic Matter] levels, with the depletion of SOM stocks often leading to large-scale impacts on whole ecosystems as well as the entire planet . . . “Source – Extract: Soil Carbon Storage
One of the more recent monoculture events that shocked the World was the mass felling and destruction of heritage rain forests in order to make way for palm oil plantations. The outrage saw many boycotting the purchase of products containing palm oil – yet the industry continues to grow . . .
Paddocks without hedges and windbreaks
Soils without trees, ground cover, organic matter, nor biodiveristy
→ leaves them prone to erosion by sun, wind and water.
Since the British landed on the shores of Australia in 1788, forests were logged and lands cleared. Monoculture dominated the landscape, whether it be livestock or crops, which has proven that it just does not work as we watch:
- increasingly devastating drought and floods;
- dust storms;
- water restrictions;
- livestock dying of thirst and starvation;
- crops failing;
- pollution choking our air, land and waterways;
- algal blooms suffocating and killing massive fish numbers;
- the size, intensity and frequency of bushfires increasing (An estimated 18.7 million hectares – the largest area by far on record – lost in the Black Summer of 2019-2020).
. . . isn’t it time to stop and rethink our practices?
The Solution: Permaculture
Contrary to Monoculture, Permaculture is a more balanced, organic and natural way of approaching gardening and agriculture, as it principally relies on the recycling of organic matter which supports, and is supported by, biodiversity.
The beauty of permaculture is that the key minerals for healthy growth such as Phosphorus, Nitrogen and Potassium are provided to the plants in a digestible form – unlike chemical fertiliser applications which tend to hold a greater percentage of these elements a form that is indigestible.
The natural process of decomposing organic matter is largely a biological process. Its speed and success is defined by the soil organisms present, the physical environment and the quality of the organic matter. Soil macro- and micro-organisms use organic matter as food. The excess nutrients such as Nitrogen and Phosphorus are released into the soil in forms digestible to plants.
The structure that the organic matter adds to soils results in increased water and nutrient retention, therefore reducing the risk of polluting the surrounding ecologies and waterways.
” . . . Organic matter is a key component of soil that affects its physical, chemical, and biological properties, contributing greatly to its proper functioning on which human societies depend. Benefits of soil organic matter (SOM) include improvement of soil quality through increased retention of water and nutrients, resulting in greater productivity of plants in natural environments and agricultural settings. SOM improves soil structure and reduces erosion, leading to improved water quality in groundwater and surface waters, and ultimately to increased food security and decreased negative impacts to ecosystems . . . “
” . . . Restoration of organic matter levels in soil requires an understanding of the ecological processes important for SOM storage. Proper restoration techniques can help restore terrestrial ecosystem functions . . . “Source – Extracts: Soil Carbon Storage
Hence, the first steps in rejuvenating the soil organically, is to provide windbreaks, shelter and organic matter.
Removing excess Nitrogen from the soils can be achieved by mulching with wood chips and shredded bark as they use nitrogen from the soil as they break down. However, removing it from waterways is near impossible without a water treatment plant – the best solution is to stop it entering the waterways in the first place.
Reducing excess Phosphorus in the soil begins by firstly avoiding future applications of Phosphorus based fertilisers as well as limiting rich organic composts and manures until such time that biodiversity has been achieved. Again, spreading fields and gardens with mulch low in Phosphorus such as wood chips and shredded bark will assist in diluting the soil.
As much as the wood chips and shredded bark dilute the chemically introduced minerals; green manure crops, aged manures, compost and the like will introduce minerals immediately available and digestible to plants. The process of photosynthesis by the plants seize the carbon from the atmosphere, pumping any excess into the soil. As Carbon is the foundation of soil organic matter, a balance will be attained via the decomposition process resulting in improved water-retention properties as well as soil structure and fertility.
Permaculture is not an instant fix, but by reintroducing an organic balance into the soil, biodiversity will be restored and ultimately result in a healthy increase in productivity as demonstrated on the inspiring documentary Biggest Little Farm. There are many documented success stories such as this available.
” . . . A contrasting method to monoculture is permaculture. Permaculture is effectively a reversal in that it promotes biodiversity and the implantation of a diverse range of crops. This method of farming intends to ensure the ecosystem remains strong with different plants working together to thrive the land. Permaculture fundamentally aims to avoid having anything from becoming too influential on the farm to the detriment of other assets, be it species of insect or plant . . . “Source – The Dangers of Monoculture Farming
By introducing permaculture farms need not be so large, as smaller acreages can achieve the same results as well as often reducing costs as less infrastructure, transport and energy are required. Many farmers are already diversifying their farm’s functions to ensure an income no matter what the season.
Permaculture has been unparalleled in the success of restoring damaged lands.
It is the only method of cultivating that has proven to be infinitely sustainable over many thousands of years.
Monoculture may have been more efficient and inexpensive for the farmer initially, but the numerous and significant negative impacts on the environment are now significantly impacting and affecting the future of those farms and surrounding ecologies.
We can learn so much from the practices of the past. The last 250 years have proven that monoculture is not sustainable, as we have observed that the fewer the species → the less the biodiversity → the higher the risk of poisoning and failure of terrestrial and aquatic environs.
Artificial fertilisers have impacted our soils to such an extent that the vital nutritional elements are “locked up” and inaccessible to plants, compacted, and water repellent. Herbicides have killed so many species of plant – most of which do not thrive in healthy soils anyway.
The use of insecticides has killed as many of the beneficial insects, fungus and microbes as it has the pests, which generally are only attracted to sick plants anyway. As the flowers and insects decline, so do the birds and animals – and all that support life itself . . .
Fortunately the damage that has been done is not irreversible as has been documented and proven by the “Biggest Littlest Farm”. It is very encouraging to witness how quickly the balance of nature and life can be restored.
It is time now, to move back to a sustainable future of biodiversity in homes, suburbs, towns, cities, farms, forests, fields, nature reserves – everywhere !!