Stories | May 10, 2017 | Read Time: 7 minutes
Monocultures: The Myth…the Reality…the Future
By leading farmers to focus on a small number of highly lucrative seeds, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) foster the spread of monocultures. As a result, they erode biodiversity and actually put humanity at risk of famine through increased crop vulnerability to disease.
“Very simply,” in the words of Michael Pollan, “a field of identical plants will be exquisitely vulnerable to insects, weeds, and disease. Monoculture is at the root of virtually every problem that bedevils the modern farmer…”
Monocultures—large areas planted with the same type of crop—predate the development of GMOs by decades if not centuries. That’s because the real driver of monoculture farming has been mechanized agriculture. Planting and harvesting of crops are faster and more efficient if farm equipment is working on a single crop, rather than a collection of different ones—a polyculture.
Although we don’t have to accept everything mechanized agriculture has resulted in to date, it is hard to overstate its benefits. When my grandfather was farming in Illinois in the 1930s, he did so literally with horsepower. At that time perhaps 25 percent of the state’s population was engaged in agriculture. Today that figure is less than 2 percent. By exponentially increasing productivity, mechanized agriculture has unleashed a huge pool of labor that has built new industries for the country. At the same time, it has greatly increased the affordability of food. The result has been a complete transformation of society—from rural to urban and to far higher levels of national wealth and food security.
GMOs, which began entering the market in the late 1990s, have simply been incorporated into the modern farming practices, including monocultures, that mechanized agriculture has helped drive. GMOs, however, can also be incorporated into other kinds of farming practices, such as those often employed in less developed parts of the world. Indeed, GMOs are being used today by millions of smallholder farmers in countries across Asia and Africa.
Conversely, the inherent efficiencies of monocultures are so compelling that many non-GMO farmers—including those who favor organic methods—also rely on them. That organic lettuce and kale you may be eating could well be the product of monoculture farming.
Finally, it’s important to understand that monocultures exist in two dimensions—time and space. That’s because no matter how many acres of corn or soybeans or some other crop a farmer may plant, he or she faces a new decision about what to plant the following year. Such decisions are based on field history, crop rotation, and market demand. If corn prices are low, for example, a farmer may choose to plant more soybeans or wheat or another crop, depending on the location. In other words, at least for row crops, there is more flexibility and diversity built into the system than the word “monoculture” implies. Orchards and vineyards, on the other hand, do operate on much longer timescales—grapevines for as long as 50 to 100 years.
Corn and soybean fields may look the same as you drive by on the interstate or fly over the “I-states” (Indiana, Illinois, Iowa), but they are in fact incredibly genetically diverse. And that diversity is actually increasing.
Consider corn. In the mid-1990s when Monsanto first entered the seed business in that crop, 90 percent of hybrids were produced from male and female plants of largely U.S. origin. The commercial gene pool was relatively narrow, using less than 10 percent of the global corn gene pool. Since then, however, a combination of advances—in molecular breeding techniques, the use of DNA markers, computing and more—have enabled us to incorporate ex-U.S. strains of corn into our own. As a result, the majority of our new corn hybrids today contain genes from “foreign” corn—varieties grown in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Asia, and Europe.
We are, in short, using more of corn’s global gene pool—and dramatically expanding the genetic diversity in farmers’ fields.
With biotechnology, we can add even more genetic diversity by incorporating foreign genes from other plants and microbes. A leading U.S. corn hybrid that contains the SmartStax® trait package, for example, introduces eight such genes into the crop. These genes and others provide protection against insects, weeds and drought. Within a decade, corn hybrids may contain 20 to 30 of these new, helpful GMO traits.
A few more points relating to the impact of GMOs on genetic diversity:
- Farmers are acutely aware of the importance of diversifying their plantings. When growing corn, U.S. farmers typically plant four to seven different hybrids to manage field variability, disease and insect resistance, and harvest dates.
- Insecticide sprays may kill a broad array of insects—including beneficial ones—as well as soil organisms. GMO crops that carry built-in protection against harmful insects dramatically reduce the need for insecticide sprays and thereby enhance biodiversity. By better protecting the corn roots from insect feeding and damage, the GMO traits also make the crop more drought resistant.
Skeptical? In 2010, the National Research Council (NRC) released a comprehensive assessment of the effect of GM crop adoption on farm sustainability in the United States. The NRC is the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, which in turn are made up of some of the top scientists and engineers in the country. Among the report’s conclusions:
Generally, GE crops have had fewer adverse effects on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally. The use of pesticides with toxicity to non-target organisms or with greater persistence in soil and waterways has typically been lower in GE fields than in non-GE, nonorganic fields.
- Finally, the use of GMO herbicide-tolerant crops has resulted in widespread adoption of conservation tillage, which has a huge beneficial impact on soil biodiversity. Instead of tearing up their fields with big, fossil fuel-burning tractors, farmers can control the weeds on an acre with herbicides that fit in a soda can. Energy use and greenhouse gas emissions are slashed along with water loss from soils.
In short, the allegation that GMOs foster vulnerable monocultures is false. The truth is that GMOs are making both our crops and our farms more biodiverse – and more sustainable.
As recently as the mid-1990s, Hawaiian papayas were on the verge of extinction from a viral disease. What saved them? As this New York Times story reports, a GMO variety that resists the virus that was annihilating it.
Now the banana is threatened by a soil fungus called “Panama Disease” or, alternatively, “Fusarium Wilt”. What could save it? A GMO variety that resists that fungus.
Likewise, the U.S. citrus industry is facing a looming crisis of “citrus greening.” What could save it? As this New York Times story reports, a GMO variety of oranges that resists the bacteria that destroys it.
In all these cases, biotechnology provides solutions to problems fostered by monocultures—solutions that would enable us to keep using these crops to nourish millions of people and support the livelihoods of large numbers of farmers. And in the near future, the increased utilization of data science and precision AG tools based on satellite imagery, drones, robotics and sensors will provide additional ways to manage and enhance monoculture production.
Should we turn our backs on these solutions because some critics oppose monocultures, when those monocultures are a product of agricultural methods that have fed more people better than ever before and have helped create our increasingly prosperous modern world?
And should we turn our back on those solutions when they actually increase—not decrease—the genetic diversity in our environment?
The answer speaks for itself.