This is our presentation at the 9th World Conference on Ecological Restoration.

What’s so problematic about monocultures?

Alexander Tinti | December 15, 2022

The practice of growing only one crop on a piece of land has come to dominate modern industrial agriculture. Monocultures promise efficiency by lowering maintenance and harvesting costs, and the introduction of artificial fertilizer finally made the isolation of individual plants from their natural ecosystems possible. Over the last decades, if not centuries, this view has made the global food system increasingly reliant on food production in monocultures. This has led to a predicament: the challenges caused by monocultures have long been overlooked or downplayed and their drastic consequences are now beginning to surface. Read on to learn about some of the most important ones.

Nutrient depletion

First, monocultures quickly deplete the soil from nutrients the plant needs to grow. This is the main reason why artificial fertilizers become necessary: crops would not be able to grow naturally otherwise. However, these agrochemicals further deplete the soil by killing off microorganisms essential for its fertility and water-holding capacity. The impoverished soil then is not only less and less fertile, but also helplessly exposed to erosion – we literally lose the ground under our feet. A recent study has shown that 91% of all conventionally cultivated soils are thinning currently.

Susceptibility for diseases

Second, monocultures are a feast for diseases and plagues. Conventional agriculture therefore uses pesticides and herbicides, once again ignoring their devastating consequences: poisoning waterbodies, killing bees and other pollinators, causing sterility in birds etc. In addition, monocultures are always at risk of being completely eradicated by new pesticide-resistant pathogens or insects. In Costa Rica, banana monocultures have suffered this fate before.

Land use

Third, the need for land in industrial agriculture is enormous. This need is often met by the deforestation of old-growth rainforests. Currently, the average size of a soccer field is being cut down every six seconds! As usual, consequences are being ignored.

Price instability

Last but not least, growing only one crop exposes the farmer to unforeseen price drops which can cause painful losses in earnings. While farmers in more developed countries can hedge against this challenge with financial products, it frequently drives more rural farmers out of business, endangering their livelihoods.

The systemic view of our food system

How do monocultures fit into the grand scheme of things? We attempted to give a visual answer to this question with the infographic below:

Beside the loss of biodiversity, erosion is one of the most striking consequences of the practices of conventional agriculture. Nature’s remedy are plants that we ironically call weeds. These can grow where other plants can’t: they draw nutrients from the depth of the soil to the surface and as they die, they make them available to more delicate plants. The answer of conventional agriculture, however, is to poison them with ever stronger herbicides, setting off the vicious cycle illustrated above.

Forest gardens are a central part of the larger solution

These challenges are systemic – they cannot be solved individually. At the Refugio, we develop solutions which together address these interlinked challenges. To tackle food production, we propose forest gardens.