Industrial agriculture that focuses on growing just a few isolated crops in large supply rather than an array of diverse crops on a smaller scale is threatening the global food supply in ways that might shock you. A new report by the agricultural research organization CGIAR has found that entire food systems are threatened with collapse by chemical-intensive monoculture, a corporate farming model that is rapidly spreading throughout the Third World.
Trust.org reports that, over the last 50 years, many developing countries have shifted away from traditional agriculture models in favor of Western methods. In the spirit of globalization, these nations have welcomed with open arms the prospects of improved yields and greater food stability, two of a number of dishonest marketing claims that chemical companies continually use to exploit food production systems in the developing world.
But as these brave new agricultural systems mature in use, it is becoming apparent that monocropping in general cannot be sustained over the long term. Pests, pollution and plant diseases are just a few of the long-term consequences of monoculture that increase the vulnerability of crop systems, putting the greater food supply at serious risk.
“We know from history that there is vulnerability caused by uniformity in agriculture,” said Colin Khoury, lead author of the new report. “The big examples, terrible ones of course, are the Irish potato famine and an event with corn in the U.S. in the 70s,” he added, referring in his latter statement to a fungus that swept the nation in the 1970s, destroying some 15 percent of the nation’s corn crop.
Relying on just a few dominant crops puts all of society’s eggs in one basket
Using a basic home garden as an example, think of the divergent risks associated with planting a yard full of lettuce, tomatoes, herbs and fruit trees compared to a yard growing just tomatoes. If the tomato plants in the diverse garden catch a disease specific to their kind, the other crops will probably be unaffected. But if the tomato plants in the monocrop garden catch this same disease, the entire garden might fail.
“I have an analogy I like to use about transport systems,” explains Khoury, as quoted by Reuters. “Here where I live in Cali, Colombia, people take these microbuses to work, and there’s 20-30 people on a bus, and if any of those buses breaks down, it affects that many people.”
“But if you have a system like the Tokyo metro, where you’re transporting millions of people a day and its efficient and fast and people believe in it and its [sic] working, if you have a breakdown in that system, it also affects a lot more people.”
Crop diversity is key to long-term food sustainability
In other words, monoculture is centralized agriculture, a corporate farming model that places an all-or-nothing bet on the success of just a few crops. If these crops fail, or if the system proves to be lacking in other ways — a lack of food diversity means a lack of nutrition options, which spells public health disaster — then the entire food supply takes a hit.
“Diversity and variety doesn’t mean a decrease in yield at all,” stresses Khoury, noting that the conservation of genetically varied crops is critical for maintaining long-term food viability. “That’s something that if we don’t do a good job with, we’re basically limiting our future options forever. That’s about (protecting) the genetic diversity that breeders use to change and make their crops more productive.”
You can read an abstract of Khoury’s paper as published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) here: pnas.org.
Sources for this article include:
- Over 250 million people faced food insecurity in 2020 amid pandemic
- From trash to treasure: Scientists to turn food waste into “high-value products” for new markets like cosmetics and packaging
- Food storage tips: How to store canned foods safely
- 10 Tips that will ensure you have enough food after disaster strikes