Monoculture is the agricultural practice of producing or growing a single crop, plant, or livestock species, variety, or breed in a field or farming system at a time. Polyculture, where more than one crop is grown in the same space at the same time, is the alternative to monoculture. Monoculture, widely used both in industrial farming and in organic farming, has allowed increased efficiency in planting and harvesting while simultaneously increasing the risk of exposure to diseases or pests. This is a cheap way of duplicating produce.
Continuous monoculture, or monocropping, where agriculturalists raise the same species year after year, can lead to the quicker buildup of pests and diseases, and then their rapid spread where a uniform crop is susceptible to a pathogen. Monocultures of perennials, such as African palm oil, sugar cane, and pines, can lead to environmental problems. Diversity can be added both in time, as with a crop rotation or sequence, or in space, with a polyculture.
The term "oligoculture" has been used to describe a crop rotation of just a few crops, as practiced in several regions of the world.
|Diversity in time|
|Diversity in space||Low||Monoculture, one species in a field||Continuous
(rotation of monocultures)
|Sequence of monocultures|
|Higher||Polyculture, two or more species
intermingled in a field
|Rotation of polycultures||Sequence of polycultures|
The term is also used where a single breed of farm animal is raised in large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
In crop monocultures, each plant in a field has the same standardized planting, maintenance and harvesting requirements resulting in greater yields and lower costs. When a crop is matched to its well-managed environment, a monoculture can produce higher yields than a polyculture. In the last 40 years, modern practices such as monoculture planting and the use of synthesized fertilizers have reduced the amount of additional land needed to produce food.
Annually planting the same crop in the same area depletes the nutrients from the earth that the plant relies on and leaves soil weak and unable to support healthy growth. Because soil structure and quality is so poor, farmers are forced to use chemical fertilizers to encourage plant growth and fruit production. These fertilizers, in turn, disrupt the natural makeup of the soil and contribute further to nutrient depletion. Polyculture, the mixing of different crops, increases the likelihood that one or more of the crops will be resistant to any particular pathogen. Studies have shown that planting a mixture of crop strains in the same field can combat disease effectively. Switching to polyculture in areas with disease conditions can greatly increased yields. In one study in China, the planting of several varieties of rice in the same field increased yields of non-resistant strains by 89% compared to non-resistant strains grown in monoculture, largely because of a dramatic (94%) decrease in the incidence of disease, making pesticides less necessary.
Humans rely heavily on a relatively small number of food crops and farm animals for food. If disease hits a major food crop - as happened during the 19th-century Great Famine of Ireland - food supplies for large populations could come under threat. Maintaining and increasing biodiversity in agriculture could help safeguard world food-supplies.
In forestry, monoculture refers to the planting of one species of tree. Monoculture plantings provide greater yields and more efficient harvesting than natural stands of trees. Single-species stands of trees are often the natural way trees grow, but the stands show a diversity in tree sizes, with dead trees mixed with mature and young trees. In forestry, monoculture stands that are planted and harvested as a unit provide limited resources for wildlife that depend on dead trees and openings, since all the trees are the same size; they are most often harvested by clearcutting, which drastically alters the habitat. The mechanical harvesting of trees can compact soils, which can adversely affect understory growth. Single-species planting also causes trees to be more vulnerable when they are infected with a pathogen, or attacked by insects, or affected by adverse environmental conditions.
While often referring to the mass production of the same species of crop, it can also refer to planting of a single cultivar which has same identical genetic makeups to the plants around them. When all plants in a monoculture are genetically similar, a disease, to which they have no resistance, can destroy entire populations of crops. As of 2009[update] the wheat leaf-rust fungus occasioned a great deal of worry internationally, having already decimated wheat crops in Uganda and Kenya, and having started to make inroads into Asia as well. Given the very genetically similar strains of much of the world's wheat crops following the Green Revolution, the impacts of such diseases threaten agricultural production worldwide.
Historic examples of monoculturesEdit
Great Famine of IrelandEdit
In Ireland, exclusive use of one variety of potato, the "lumper", led to the Great Famine of 1845–1849. Lumpers provided inexpensive food to feed the Irish masses. Potatoes were propagated vegetatively with little to no genetic variation. When Phytophthora infestans arrived in Ireland from the Americas in 1845, the lumper had no resistance to the disease, leading to the nearly complete failure of the potato crop across Ireland.
Until the 1950s, the Gros Michel cultivar of banana represented almost all bananas consumed in the United States because of their taste, small seeds, and efficiency to produce. Their small seeds, while more appealing than the large ones in other Asian cultivars, were not suitable for planting. This meant that all new banana plants had to be grown from the cut suckers of another plant. As a result of this asexual form of planting, all bananas grown had identical genetic makeups which gave them no traits for resistance to Fusarium wilt, a fungal disease that spread quickly throughout the Caribbean where they were being grown. By the beginning of the 1960s, growers had to switch to growing the Cavendish banana, a cultivar grown in a similar way. This cultivar is under similar disease stress since all the bananas are clones of each other and could easily succumb as the Gros Michel did.
Many of today's livestock production systems rely on just a handful of highly specialized breeds. Focusing heavily on a single trait (output) may come at the expense of other desirable traits - such as fertility, resistance to disease, vigor, and mothering instincts. In the early 1990s a few Holstein calves were observed to grow poorly and died in the first 6 months of life. They were all found to be homozygous for a mutation in the gene that caused bovine leukocyte adhesion deficiency. This mutation was found at a high frequency in Holstein populations worldwide. (15% among bulls in the US, 10% in Germany, and 16% in Japan.) Researchers studying the pedigrees of affected and carrier animals tracked the source of the mutation to a single bull that was widely used in the industry. Note that in 1990 there were approximately 4 million Holstein cattle in the US, making the affected population around 600,000 animals.
Benefits of genetic diversityEdit
While having little to no variety in the genetics of an agricultural system can have drawbacks, increasing genetic diversity by introducing organisms with varying genes can divert them and make the system more sustainable. For example, by having crops with varying genetic traits for disease and pest resistance, there is a much lower chance of having those pests or diseases spread throughout the area. This is because if one crop becomes infected with a particular strain of disease or species of pest, there is a chance that the other plants around it will have genes that protect them from that strain/species. This can help increase crop productivity while simultaneously lowering pesticide usage and risk of exposure.
The environmental movement seeks to change popular culture by redefining the "perfect lawn" to be something other than a turf monoculture, and seeks agricultural policy that provides greater encouragement for more diverse cropping systems. Local food systems may also encourage growing multiple species and a wide variety of crops at the same time and same place. Heirloom gardening and raising heritage livestock breeds have come about largely as a reaction against monocultures in agriculture.
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