Deep Dive: Monocultures & Polycultures

Today we’re taking a deep dive into monocultures and polycultures and why they are important.

Monoculture: the use of land for growing only one type of crop or supporting only one species of animal.

Polyculture: the use of land for growing more than one type of crop or supporting more than one species of animal.

Some background:

Since the 1970's, our agriculture system in the US has prioritized yields – more corn, more soybeans, more wheat, and more efficient growing. To get these high yields (which we have!), growers typically grow one crop on large amounts of land. They grow that one crop season after season because (1) there is a market for it and (2) they get government subsidies to do so (a story for another day). In this country, we're growing a massive crop every year of dent corn (roughly 90 million acres), soybeans (roughly 77 million acres), and winter wheat (roughly 42 million acres).

This system (which is a monoculture) has successfully created huge numbers of calories available for consumption by people and animals. BUT, there are some major problems with it.


Other monoculture examples:

For corporations like McDonalds, making French fries that taste the same in every restaurant requires buying millions of the same kind of potato over and over. Hence, there's a huge market for Russet Burbank potatoes -- McDonalds’ primary fry-maker.

As individuals making our food choices on a daily basis, most of us eat the same 20 things repeatedly. We eat a lot of one type of cuisine, or we go to the same restaurant and order the same menu item every week. We even get stuck making the same few dishes at home over and over.

At restaurants, many chefs won’t try cooking with new or unusual ingredients, or even different types of meats, veggies, and fish. They like to stick with what works which, of course, makes sense. If it’s working well, why fix it? It's bringing in customers and revenue.

But these monocultures aren’t working well enough. They are problematic and they deserve our attention.


So what’s wrong with them?

Our monoculture system is broken because it forces growers to reduce diversity. In planting one variety of a crop, we are essentially putting all our eggs in one basket. If a fungus or pest gets to one plant in the crop, it can damage all the plants because they are all genetically identical. This leaves our crops too exposed and, as a result, growers have to spray aggressively to keep away pests. At the moment, the action taken by growers is protecting crops, but it won’t be long before pests evolve beyond the chemicals we spray. Additionally, fertilizing and spraying is really bad for the soil and the environment (see dead zones).

We are trying to take control of nature and it won’t work. We should be working with nature, not trying to outdo it!

Remember reading about the Irish potato famine? It was the disaster that killed one million people living in Ireland between 1845 and 1852. Caused by Phytophthora infestans, a disease known as potato blight, it affected many countries in Europe, but was disproportionately catastrophic for Ireland. This was because the Irish relied heavily on potatoes for food and had planted mostly one variety. There was very little genetic diversity in the potato crop, so when the disease came in contact with the plants, it wiped them all out at once. In 1846, 3/4ths of the entire potato crop in Ireland was lost.

This tragedy serves as a cautionary tale for what we’ve been doing for the past 40 years in America. We’ve gotten stuck in monocultures and to fix our broken food system, we need to switch to more polycultures.


Why are polycultures awesome?

Planting more varieties of crops together on the same land spreads out risk and helps the environment. If a certain crop fails one year, others will still thrive. If one crop depletes the soil, others will enrich it. Polycultures also allow for fewer preventative inputs and wiser use of resources. This is how the natural world functions without human interaction and it’s a model from which we can benefit.

Planting polycultures and consuming polyculturally (a made-up word that should be in our language) is also better for our health. Trying different fruits, vegetables, and grains gives our bodies access to more varied nutrients and gets us excited about interesting-tasting foods. There are hundreds of kinds of potatoes, apples, and squashes, but at the grocery store, only a few are available.


So what can you do?

1) Get educated. Had you heard about monocultures and polycultures before reading this post? Heard of them, but couldn’t remember what they were or why they mattered? Spend a few minutes this week thinking about what you eat and how much of it is the same old routine. Learn more about growing varieties of plants and seed diversity.

2) Shop differently. What grocery store are you going to? Maybe once a week or once a month, try a more sustainable option. Look for a farmers’ market to buy directly from a grower, check out a health food grocery store, look up if there are any food co-ops in your area. When you go, buy a variety of something you've never seen before. Fruits and vegetables are a low-commitment way to test out something new. Sometimes, you just can’t get the unusual varieties of apple at your grocery store, but if you connect with a farmer, it might open up new possibilities. And if you discover that you love cooking with Nootka Rose garlic, tell a friend, teach a relative, talk more about what you’re eating and where it came from.

I submit these two suggestions to you humbly. They are not panaceas. Fixing our food system is a massive goal. One that probably won’t be solved in my lifetime. Instead of throwing our hands up and deeming it unsolvable, let’s work on each moving the needle a little bit. Take the time to learn about our food system and figure out how YOU can make your difference.