Farming is one of our oldest occupations. The success rate of being able to cultivate nutritious food has always affected our quality of life. We all probably carry the genes of our ancestors from the Stone Age who have started to settle down and cultivate the first crops instead of foraging for seasonal foods only.
Along with the evolution of our way of living throughout the centuries, our food production systems have been continuously evolving as well, up to the point when small-scale subsistence agriculture wasn’t enough to feed everyone in the increasingly industrialized world.
That is when in the second half of the last century, large-scale, intensive farming methods appeared. And they seemed to be the ultimate solution to maximizing agricultural production from cultivated lands by narrowing down the focus on high-yielding varieties or breeds that prospered the most in local conditions.
By becoming specialized in producing only the most economical options, operating costs of farms decreased, and farm management became simpler as farmers could follow the same plans every growing season. Furthermore, this method enabled farmers to invest into specialized technology that allowed them to use their time and resources with the highest efficiency.
No wonder that this way of farming has quickly gained popularity among farmers and has led to the development of rural landscapes in many places around the world as we know them today—vast areas of uniformly looking crops, sown at the same time, harvested at the same time, year after year.
These are the praised monoculture fields, looking neat and prosperous at the first look, yet concealing some negative aspects right below their pretty surface.
What is monoculture farming?
Monoculture farming means that on a given agricultural land is grown only one species of a crop at a time. If two or more species are sown in the field together (for example beans and corn), it is not a monoculture but a polyculture system.
It is important to know that we still call it monoculture even if this single crop species is replaced by a different crop in the next growing season. We see this practice being applied on large commercial farms often, when farmers, for example, grow corn on a field for two years in a row and in the third year plant soybean to rotate the crops.
The reason why that is still monoculture farming is that there is only one species of genetically uniform plants present on the field at one time.
Another method of growing monoculture crops is perhaps the one that you would imagine at first when hearing the term. It is a continuous growing of the same crop species on the same land every year without change. This method is also referred to as “monocropping” or continuous monoculture.
But monoculture isn’t connected only with crop cultivation, it is applied even in animal agriculture. Examples of monoculture animal farms are everywhere around us: farms specializing in rearing high milk production dairy cows, broiler chicken farms, sheep farms, pig farms…and other.
Unfortunately, monoculture in animal farming often equals factory farming, which is done at the great expense of animal welfare in exchange for high productivity.
What are the advantages of monoculture farming?
At this point you may not know what to think about monocultures. Is this farming technique good for our future food production system or is it just another more ‘convenient-at-the-moment’ way of producing food for masses?
Let’s have a look at the benefits of single plant cropping and single animal species rearing, and you will understand why this method is appealing to many farmers.
#1 Allows specialized production
“Less is often more.”
Any economist will tell you that specialization is a good thing as it creates economies of scale that maximize profits and minimize costs. The same principle applies to agriculture, especially on a large-scale, industrial level.
Do not forget that running a farm equals to running a business, which entails lot of responsibilities, knowledge, long-term planning and investment. It requires a set of interdisciplinary skills combined with taking risks without being able to predict the outcome.
By cultivating the same species, farmers can optimize their operations given that growing requirements, planting, maintenance (including pest control) and harvesting will be the same across the farmed land. This allows for planning ahead, taking time off and being prepared for each growing season when it’s needed.
Specialization also enables farmers to develop in-depth knowledge and direct experience about their specific crops or livestock. This is a great advantage in preventing significant losses before they happen, as farmers may recognize warning signs of a disease right at the beginning or know how to mitigate damage caused by unexpected weather.
Smaller variety of produce reflects increase in production at a lower cost because the equipment and farm management remain the same over the time. Additionally, buying seeds and supplements in bulk usually means getting some percentage off the initial price which further pushes the costs down.
#2 Promotes technological advances in agriculture
Yes, it was monoculture that first allowed the deployment of the mechanization in agriculture and changed the lifestyle of people in many developed countries for good.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the mechanization replaced the strenuous human labor in agriculture and started the shift towards industrialization–increasing productivity, allowing more people to take on different occupations rather than just farm for subsistence, bringing prices of food down, giving rise to urbanization.
So, how did this transition start?
By planting the same crop on one field, farmers created as uniform conditions as possible during any growth stage. Imagine: the same distance between rows and individual plants, the same size of plants in the same vegetative stage across the field.
These were the perfect conditions for bringing in machinery to take over the tasks like planting and harvesting that would otherwise require continuous manual work of many people .
Since the time when the very first tractors plowed the fields, the technology used in agriculture has advanced even more. Nowadays, you can see the most specialized equipment that perfectly matches the needs of farmers focused on intensive production of certain crops. Take, for example, the spindle-type cotton harvester. A specialized machine that harvests successfully more than 90 percent of cotton lint from a field and is capable of wrapping harvested cotton into bales at the spot .
As you can imagine this greatly reduces other labor that would be involved if farmers didn’t own such a technology.
When it comes to advances in agriculture, we shouldn’t forget even animal farms, where the technology progressed in a way that dairy cows are milked by robotic milking machines that also feed them their individual feed portion based on the computer reading from each cow’s chip. Or manure cleaning robots that promptly remove manure from large stables.
#3 Increases efficiency
The primary reason why farmers decide for monoculture agriculture is their desire to maximize output and minimize labor that is involved.
It is as simple as it sounds, and it greatly improves efficiency of tasks and processes that take place during the production.
Monoculture can play to the advantages of the local climate and soil conditions. Crops that are best suited for the land are planted so that soil and climate specifications, such as winds, droughts or a short growing season, don’t impact the yield as much.
For example, continuous monocultures of wheat are cultivated on fields across Texas and Oklahoma. Farmers stick to this commodity crop out of practical reasons. These areas get too little annual rainfall to support other commodity crops without irrigation .
#4 Maximizes yields of some produce
According to Andrew McGuire from the Washington State University, annual cereal crops simply have higher productivity and are easier to manage when planted as monocultures rather than combined with some other crops on one plot.
However, there is one very important condition that affects this higher yield. These crops need to be managed under the crop rotation scheme of alternating at least two different monocultures on one field. The reason is simple and practical. Crop rotation allows soil recovery and interrupts pest cycles .
Examples of rotation schemes can look like this:
- wheat rotated with canola, followed by two years of being fallow
- wheat, canola, barley and fallow period 
- two years of corn and one year of soybean 
Rotation schemes can differ greatly, and it depends on each farmer to select the most convenient one for the local conditions.
This happens because soil nutrients get depleted to the point when the production of the selected crop from that piece of land is not sufficient and plants are of poor health.
Additionally, costs are increasing because more fertilizer has to be applied and the application of pesticides increases as well. For this reason, majority of farms follow some basic rotation schemes.
This means that if farmers rotate monocultures on the same land in a sensible way that respects the soil ecology, they can achieve high yields from certain monocrops in the long-term.
#5 Is simpler to manage
What is also appealing to farmers is the apparent simplicity and uniformity of monoculture.
It is much easier and straightforward to cultivate one kind of a crop or breed one type of an animal in terms of the knowledge and experience needed to do it successfully.
This gives farmers more space to improve their system based on the experience, as they have time to observe what system works the best for the local climate and soil type.
Since farmers focus their management only on certain crops or livestock, they can afford to buy specialized machinery that will help them generate the revenue and will make their work easier.
#6 Offers higher earnings
60 percent of cotton production is done in the form of continuous monoculture in the United States. Years after years, acres of land are covered only in cotton.
Why? Because cotton is paid more than any other crop and rotating it with different low-profit crops would turn down important source of income .
In areas where cotton prospers, it is the most preferred monocrop by most farmers. Besides paying well, its advantage is a deep root system that allows highly efficient use of nutrients from soils .
This means that nutritional needs of cotton are lower than of other crops. If farmers rotated cotton with other commodity crops like corn, they would have to add more fertilizer to supply sufficient nutrient levels for corn plants. That is why maintaining continuous cotton monoculture is more profitable for them in the end.
Other reason why farmers generate more income from monocultures is the saving on the equipment.
For example, wheat requires different planters than corn or soybean. Therefore, it makes perfect sense why many farmers specialize either in wheat with other cereal crops, or they follow the rotation scheme of corn and soybean monocultures that use the same equipment. It’s simply the most economical option.
Since the success of farming is determined by the local climate and soil conditions, farmers also pick crops that have the highest potential to prosper in their region, are well paid and most likely will have the highest yields. Variety of suitable crops that fall within these requirements might be limited, which is another reason why farmers prefer the simplicity of monocultures.
What are the disadvantages of monoculture farming?
With the increasing evidence of pollution caused by modern agriculture, decreasing soil fertility and spread of pests, monoculture farming gets a lot of bad rap.
Single crop farming is blamed for destroying natural defenses of lands, thus negatively affecting resilience of ecosystems. Additionally, as many studies confirm, monoculture itself doesn’t always promise the best harvest.
How serious are these negative effects of monoculture on the environment and food security and should they be solely attributed to this way of farming?
Let’s have a look in detail at the numerous cons of this agricultural practice.
#1 Leads to worsening pest problems
When pests find a place where their source of food is abundant and accumulated in one place, they prosper. There is nothing standing in their way from becoming stronger and growing in numbers.
Bingo! We have just made their life easier by creating their favorite conditions in one place and at the same time by growing large swaths of monoculture fields where plants are of the same age, of the same species and in many cases even genetically identical. In case of continuously grown crops, we have even made sure that many pest generations can happily multiply over the years and embark on new discoveries to adjacent croplands.
In monocultures are no natural defenses, no barriers of naturally-repelling plants that would stop pest infestations. They have favorable conditions across large pieces of land and when one plant is susceptible to a pest, all other plants of the same species are likely to suffer from it.
This is something that has been known and proven by numerous studies for many years. For example, a study from 1983 clearly states that in cotton monoculture populations of 13 different pest species increased .
It has clear implications for farmers who rely on the single crop for their income – if something goes bad, the entire yield is most likely going to be affected.
This happened for instance in California in the 1980’s when over 12,000 acres of vines had to be replanted after it was discovered that their roots were severely affected by a new type of a Phylloxera pest (biotype B) .
Another dramatic case happened in Ireland between 1845 and 1852, when 75 percent of the country’s food staple crop–potato–got infected by potato blight (a fungus-like pest Phytophthora infestans) that destroyed most of the harvest. The effects of such a large pest infestation were tragic. Almost one million people died of starvation and many others were forced to leave their homes in desperate attempts to protect their families from this seven-years long famine .
#2 Creates pesticide resistance
When crops are infested by pests, farmers apply pesticides to kill these unwanted organisms. But some pests always manage to survive.
It is those survivors who slowly develop resistance to applied pesticides and then pass it on their progeny. New generations of pests are born with the pesticide resistance and are ready to face new challenges of further improving their survival techniques and smartly evolving according to our land management decisions.
This leads to more and more pests surviving every new pesticide application. Farmer’s reaction in most cases is to increase the frequency and amount of the pesticide application on the field .
It may work…temporarily, but in the long-term this strategy is inefficient, unsustainable and harmful to natural systems where these chemicals accumulate.
According to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds, 256 species of weeds have been reported to have developed resistance to 167 different herbicide solutions.
One of them is Palmer Amaranth or Palmer’s pigweed, a stubborn weed that infests cotton and soybean crops in the United States. Based on the farmers’ observation, this weed has already developed resistance to 13 different herbicides by now .
Are we just witnessing creation of a superweed that calls for stronger pesticides? Or has the time come to change our agricultural systems?
#3 Degrades soils
Intensive farming damages soils more than any other activity we do.
According to the United Nation’s backed study from 2017, one third of the planet’s soils are degraded due to inconsiderate methods used in the modern agriculture . And unfortunately, monocultures top the list of causes to be blamed for the global destruction of soils.
Each plant within an ecosystem needs certain amount of nutrients to grow. In natural ecosystems, plants have evolved to take the opportunity of available nutrients in their environment. If one plant species prefers certain composition of nutrients, other plant specializes on making the most out of the remaining nutrients.
This is why in healthy ecosystems is such a great diversity of species. What one doesn’t take, another one cherishes. Diverse plants coexist together in balanced numbers. They create equilibrium between nutrient intake and nutrient replenishment. When alive they use nutrients for their growth, once they die and decompose, their share of nutrients is returned back into the soil.
But when we continuously plant only one crop with its specific nutritional requirement on the same piece of land and we take it away when it has reached maturity, this cycle is interrupted. It’s just a matter of time until the plant’s preferred nutrients get depleted.
This may not be such a problem because farmers can easily apply synthetic fertilizers in the next growing season, but it’s not as simple as it seems.
Monocultures radically push the soil ecosystem out of balance by producing even more negative impacts. Let’s start with the smallest and easily overlooked unit–soil fauna.
Soil organisms, like mites, earthworms, spiders, are crucial for healthy soil structure and composition. Their abundancy is dependent upon the diversity of food sources and soil physical characteristics—which are uniformly poor in monocultures, therefore unsuitable for these important helpers. Their numbers are plummeting on such lands and important functions they perform are lacking. Sadly, this includes vital services such as breaking down organic matter, distributing nutrients, and removal of parasites or harmful bacteria and fungi.
Another commonly seen problem is erosion. Fields used for monoculture farming are often left for many weeks uncovered with no vegetation protecting soils from early spring snow thaw. Or they have too large spacing between rows exactly when those fierce summer thunderstorms hit in. The lack of natural vegetation cover largely contributes to soil erosion by water and wind, allowing fertile topsoil to be easily removed and deposited elsewhere. (In most cases in lakes or rivers where it causes more harm than benefits.)
Additionally, as helpful as heavy machinery is, its heavy weight compacts soils, altering their structure and making it harder for rain and nutrients to enter below the surface.
This is where the vicious cycle closes because no matter how much water and fertilizers are applied, these soils are not able to take them in and utilize them for crop growth. The result is increased runoff of concentrated nutrients that pollutes surrounding areas, while cultivated lands yield less and less.
#4 Encourages high use of fertilizers
For the previously mentioned reasons, farmers focused on high-yielding monoculture crops need to apply fertilizers in order to get the maximum productivity from their crops.
Diversity lacking monocrops simply cannot enrich soils of variety of nutrients on their own like natural ecosystems would. On contrary, each crop exhausts nutrients it needs for its growth. That is why farmers have to supply these nutrients every year ‘artificially.’
Longer the same monoculture grows on the same land, more fertilizers are needed because soils get more tired and damaged.
And of course, future projections show further increase in the need of feeding soils with these concentrated substances.
To get a better idea, let’s look at intensively grown corn crops in the United States. Spanning over an area equal to the size of California, 5,6 million tons of synthetic fertilizer is applied each year over these crops .
These numbers are extreme and should worry us. When there is need to supply so much of synthetically produced nutrients to the environment, doesn’t that mean that something we are doing is not right?
And since nature functions in cycles, where do all these excess nutrients end? The answer is as you may have feared…in our air and water, on our plates, and in our bodies.
#5 Pollutes the environment and contributes to climate change
Increased runoff from monocultures is the main cause of excessive algal blooms in water bodies that pollute drinking water supplies, kill sensitive aquatic species and in the worst-case results in the creation of zones with such a low oxygen content (hypoxic) in water that animals cannot survive in this habitat.
One of the prime examples of a large hypoxic zone is the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf has become a huge dead zone of over 8,000 square miles almost devoid of marine life due to fertilizer and pesticide runoff from the Corn Belt along the Upper Mississippi River .
In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded in one of its National Water Quality Inventories that agriculture pollutes at least 48 percent of rivers and 41 percent of lakes in the United States .
But all those excessive fertilizers and pesticides do not only change the chemistry of surface water, they also leak into the groundwater and drinking wells. By silently contaminating our drinking water supplies, they make their way into our bodies and negatively affect our health in the long term.
Water pollution linked to intensive monoculture farming is well known, but did you know that it is also responsible for air pollution and increased greenhouse gas emissions?
A 2016 study revealed that agriculture heavy in fertilizers or from densely packed animal farms is the number one air pollutant in the majority of developed countries .
This problem is caused by high ammonia emissions.
In the air ammonia combines with other pollutants, like nitrogen oxides and sulfates coming from other industries, like transport or energy production, and together they form dangerous particulate matter that easily enters lungs and bloodstream .
That’s not all. Our obsession with the cultivation of only one species of the most productive kind costs us more than we think!
This form of agriculture also emits high amounts of two potent greenhouse gases—methane and nitrous oxide— which contribute to climate change.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, agriculture is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide. Big part of these emissions comes from large cattle farms and processes connected with altered nitrogen cycle in soils, which is affected by the overuse (or perhaps even misuse) of nitrogen rich fertilizers in modern agriculture.
#6 Needs more water
Eroding, exposed, tilled, compacted, disturbed, nutrient and organic matter deprived–these are the common stages of how the soils look like in monoculture systems. None of them exactly depicts healthy soils and none of them supports water retention by soils.
This means that monocultures are very thirsty crops, but also very inefficient when it comes to water utilization. Doesn’t that intensify the negative effects of each other even more? Yes, and that’s the worst part of it!
Farmers often need to irrigate monoculture crops more than other crops, while at the same time, the capacity of soils to absorb the water and retain moisture is diminishing. Instead, lot of water is wasted, simply running off or quickly evaporating from the unshielded surface.
This is extremely wasteful way of managing such a precious resource like water.
What makes the situation even worse is that the most infamous monoculture crops planted all over the world in large numbers also top the list of the thirstiest crops.
Number one is cotton with the water consumption of 7,000 to 29,000 liters per kilogram. Second is rice with approximately 4,000 liters, followed by sugar cane with the need of over 2,500 liters . These crops are often irrigated from lakes and rivers, but in many places, like for example corn monocrops in Kansas and Nebraska, groundwater is used for irrigation as well.
It is important to realize that many of these crops are grown to feed factory farmed animals. According to the FAO, the amount of water used to raise cattle (including crops grown for feed) makes cattle farming the largest water consumer in some parts of the United States and Australia .
#7 Encourages overproduction of commodity goods
Many large economies incentivize farmers to keep producing the few of the top commodity crops: corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat, rice and some more.
These crops are the most lucrative options because:
- They are easy to store;
- Give variety of consumer and non-consumer products;
- Can be sold on international markets.
They are the perfect crops for the industrial approach in the globalized world.
And so it is…agriculture that is based on the natural cycles has been adjusted to fit into the calculated world of economics. Farmers can produce large amounts of commodity crops and be sure that they will sell their harvest at the expected price because the government reimburses the difference if the real market price falls below that year.
The reaction to this is the overproduction of the most profitable crops and the decrease of diversity within individual farms but also on the country level.
For example, Jonathan Foley wrote in an article for Ensia that corn crops are heavily subsidized in the United States from crop insurance payments and additional mandates to produce ethanol. These subsidies drive the price of the corn up, encouraging farmers to plant more resource demanding corn monocultures. And the transformation is clearly visible. Since 1968, corn production in the United States grew by nearly 50 percent, making up over two thirds of the market in 2017 .
#8 Decreases biodiversity
Monocultures are based on eliminating biodiversity of plants or animals on a piece of land. That’s the key principle. That’s what makes monocultures appealing.
Their simplicity and non-complicated nature greatly suits the industrialized food production system. Biodiversity is undesirable in monocultures.
The bad news is that healthy life–vigorous, strong, resistant–has its roots in diversity. In diversity of conditions, food sources, enemies, friends. Life has evolved around these principles that sometimes provide bounty of opportunities, sometimes pose big challenges.
So, what is the main disadvantage of reducing biodiversity across agricultural lands?
When other plants and animals are removed, and we narrow down biodiversity, we need to artificially substitute for functions and services biodiverse ecosystems would perform naturally.
It is because we almost entirely remove biological controls of the system by removing also beneficial insects and plants that would act as a defense against pests and diseases.
Due to the loss of this natural resistance, farmers must closely monitor and frequently apply synthetically-created substances to their monocultures. Hence, increased input of fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, water and myriad of other ‘growth enhancers’ to monocultures.
To understand the impact of our decisions in agriculture, we need to look at the problem even from the other side. What happens with those organisms we remove from cultivated areas?
The answer is they struggle.
According to a study of the German Nature and Biodiversity Union from 2017, 15 percent of the total bird population has disappeared from rural areas in just 12 years . This includes lovely birds like sparrows, finches and skylarks. Insects are doing even worse. Insect populations have declined by 76 percent over the past 27 years .
Both problems are connected to each other, because many birds eat insects, and to intensive agriculture with the overuse of insecticides and destruction of natural environments that provide shelter and food variety for birds and insects.
#9 Kills bees and other pollinators
Honeybees and other sensitive pollinating insects are declining in numbers like other insects due to the use of pesticides in agriculture. This is the primary problem, but did you know that monoculture farming has also another negative impact on bees?
In biodiversity deprived areas, bees struggle to get enough beneficial bacteria with their food supply.
This means that young bees are often brought up on a poor diet, lacking friendly bacteria like Bifidobacterium or lactobacilli, which helps them to develop a strong immune system.
What’s more, without the diverse spectrum of bacteria, food stored in a hive goes bad faster than it should, resulting in food shortages within a hive. This further weakens bees and makes them even more vulnerable to diseases and effects of pesticides .
#10 Increases risk of harvest loss
Lack of biodiversity on farms can directly affect even farmers. Imagine especially dry year, so dry that corn crops do not prosper that season. What impact will that have on a farmer who planted corn on all his land?
Unlike farms with diverse products, this farmer’s harvest will be gone for a whole growing season because he has planted only one crop of the same kind. A crop that has the same requirements on the environmental conditions. A crop that has often the same genotype, which means that there are no exceptions, no survivors. All harvest and that year’s work is gone.
This problem repeats in case of any other threats like pest infestation, disease, nutrient insufficiency and many other irregularities.
The risks are high when you invest all you have only in one product.
#11 Depends on fossil fuels
Monoculture farms are industrialized systems. They employ mechanization on a large scale, transport high amounts of produce, cover large distances in daily operations and process tons of material.
These activities require energy. Energy that is in most cases supplied from fossil fuels because it’s cheaper and more efficient than renewable sources of energy.
Other (less obvious) areas where significant amounts of energy are consumed are irrigation, water pumping and distribution, but even throughout the lifecycle of agricultural chemicals.
Fertilizer and pesticide manufacture requires energy. Their processing, transport to farms and application as well .
#12 Is NOT climate smart
Intensively cultivated monocultures are not a climate smart way of farming. Their uniformity weakens their resilience to changing climate.
This means that it will become increasing difficult and resource demanding to achieve satisfactory yields. Some years may be extremely poor in harvest and challenging for farmers if they will carry on this way.
With climate change, our food production systems will be exposed to a frequent occurrence of extreme weather fluctuations and temperature shifts. More regions across the world will experience longer, hotter and drier summers. Colder areas will get warmer.
On one hand that will provide an opportunity to grow crops in previously unsuitable areas, but on the other hand, expansion of the favorable temperature range will bring about more pests and diseases.
Longer periods of warmer days will enable pests to complete more reproductive cycles in a season. Additionally, more pests will survive milder and shorter winters. This means that monoculture farmers will need to apply more pesticides. But even here is a catch.
Pesticide efficiency decreases in hotter temperatures. For example, a common pesticide pinoxaden works effectively against weeds at an average temperature of 25 degrees Celsius (77˚F). But when temperatures rise above 28 degrees Celsius (82˚F), it ceases to suppress weeds at all .
This development will push farmers to use harsher chemicals and methods to keep their monocrops alive, unless we radically change the way of farming and employ some climate friendly measures in agriculture.
For example, the United Nations recommends adopting Sustainable Land Management (SLM). SLM is a set of practices that are preventative to soil degradation and are adaptable to climate change.
This video nicely demonstrates what difference can sustainable land management make in terms of harvest on vulnerable and infertile lands.
Video credit: Vimeo/ WOCAT (World Overview of Conservation Approaches and Technologies)
You can also read more about the principles of sustainable land management in my article on Prevention of Desertification, which is another serious issue caused by intensive farming.
Monoculture farming may have had undeniable benefits in the past century, but in times of the climate crisis it proves to be too insecure and vulnerable.