February 19, 2014
Crop failures are an inevitable part of agricultural life. Though blame is often attributed to drought, excess rains, and other weather discrepancies, the chosen method of farming itself is never called into question. Instead, massive pest infestation is blamed, along with other plant diseases. It is prudent to ask however, why this happens at all, and the answer lies inside an unnatural state of nature: Monoculture.
Monoculture is the planting of a single crop species to the exclusion of all others in a large area, whether an acre or hundreds of thousands of acres. But monoculture is alien to nature. Some regions may have far more variety than others, but plants and wildlife are interdependent, making diversity essential to survival.
Monoculture was boosted greatly by colonization. Colonizers introduced the plantation system; vast acreage devoted to cash crops. As with other legacies colonization has left us with, the habits of big land owners remained the same well after the demise of the British Raj.
‘Modern’ farmers are wrongly taught to uproot every unwanted plant, because these are considered space-wasting weeds. As a result of this ignorant farming practice, the FAO finds that the world has lost 75% of its biodiversity already. For centuries, traditional farmers understood that there is no such things as weeds; that every plant serves its own purpose, and contributes to the farmlands’ natural state. Plants attract beneficial insects; food sources for wildlife; medicine for animals or humans. ‘Companion crops’ help maintain the balance of dozens of nutrients in the soil which plants need in varying ratios; or a brake on spread of diseases that are usually plant-specific.
The same plant can have hundreds or thousands of different varieties, each adapted to a specific geographical region, climate and other factor so people everywhere gain some advantage.
If one crop is infected or infested in a field of mixed crops, its spread is blocked by a break of unrelated crops. But in monoculture, the entire field is wiped out. This was the reason why ancient peasants across all continents grew between a dozen and several dozen different crops on the same plot. History records sudden collapses of civilization, some of them attributed primarily to monoculture. Today in the US, only three varieties are industrially farmed. In Idaho, ‘the potato state,’ one can drive past potato fields for hours of numbing monotony.
Just because some plants don’t serve a strictly human purpose doesn’t mean they are redundant. It is a western belief that nature was created to serve humans exclusively, forgetting that nature when denied the conditions for its own survival, can’t serve humans at all.
How dangerous monoculture can be is best illustrated by the example of the potato. Perhaps no other vegetable is as well travelled. It originated in the Andes running the entire 5,500 mile length of the Pacific Coast of South America. Highland temperatures fluctuate between heat and below-freezing within hours. In this harsh environment, the potato successfully combated the elements by growing safely underground – some 9,000 different varieties at different altitudes and locations!
Potatoes are more productive than grains, growing three times as much in the same area. In 2008, a Lebanese farmer dug up a 25-pound potato bigger than his head. Best of all, it can also be grown in fallow land, so it’s never idle. It’s hard to believe that the humble potato was introduced as a delicacy for European gentry, brought by Spaniards in the 1500s.
Ireland was once a British colony around the same time as the Indian subcontinent. But being on England’s doorstep, the oppression the Irish faced was crushing. Virtually growing itself, the potato took little care and throve in large quantities even in poor soil. Unsurprisingly, it became the sole food for the poorest doing long, daily hours of physical labour. One acre could support a family for a year.
Potato monoculture got a boost all over Europe and the Irish poor planted over 2 million acres though they lived exclusively on potatoes coming from a single variety.
In 1844, newspapers reported a disease destroying potato crops in eastern America for two years running. Passenger ships to Europe and Ireland probably carried the disease in their potato supplies. By 1845 it struck Belgium, Holland, parts of France and England. Ireland was the worst hit because of the extreme potato dependency of the 3 million poorest. The fungus-like infection caused rotting from the inside within days of being dug up. The wind spread the disease rapidly, racing 50-60 miles a week.
Over the next decade, a million Irish died of hunger and the rest were debilitated by malnutrition. 2 million migrated to North America. Within five years, the Irish population was reduced by a quarter. And all because of a bad potato.
Today profiteering corporations are primed to repeat history, because all GM/Bt crops are monoculture crops. They believe they can beat nature by reassembling it, by tinkering with genes and transferring chosen traits from various species where they don’t belong. They refuse to accept that living nature irrepressibly keeps evolving; pests develop increased resistance, that crops needing fewer chemicals are short-lived and end up needing more.
Chemicals have saturated the world and spread disease. Disasters lurk silently, waiting to happen. Nature is resilient, but it can take only so much abuse. GM crops are superfluous; designed for making money, not public purpose. Ironically, for constant fresh supply of new genes, GM crops rely on biodiversity which they simultaneously kill. Corporations continue mopping up world agriculture by whittling down to a few patented varieties so that no peasant or agri-business can grow anything without paying royalties or becoming chemically dependent.
There were once 30,000 varieties of rice grown in the subcontinent. They are down to a thousand today. 95% of the world’s food comes from just 30 plants whereas earlier, people sourced 1500 plants for food.
Something has to change before nature takes matters into its own hands. The Irish didn’t have a choice. We do.
This article was published in The Nation on February 19, 2014