Over the past hundred years, the industrialization of agriculture has revolutionized the way we grow food, the way we live, and the food we eat. Efficient machinery, irrigation, and the use of pesticides and better fertilizers has allowed for the growth of high yielding crops, so much so that grain production has more than doubled within the last 60 years. Despite the immediate benefits of modern agriculture practices, a wide variety of issues have developed, which now threaten the sustainability of vegetation and our overall health.
Modern Farms and Monocultures
The specialized machinery of large farms requires only one crop to be grown at a time. This is known as a monocrop. Currently, only three crops account for 60% of the world’s diet: rice, corn, and wheat. As a result, agricultural diversity has considerably decreased. Traditionally, multiple crops were grown together in the same fields. This practice is still typically found in the rainforest, wherein numerous grains, vegetables, trees, fruits, and root crops are all grown together. Allowing for such biodiversity protects against stripping the land of precious nutrients, in addition to warding off any pests, such as birds and insects, which might be repelled by certain plants. Monocrops, though yielding a significantly high amount, are more vulnerable to pests and loss of nutrients. This phenomenon is essentially coined “over farming.” Over farming has created a reliance on chemicals, such as pesticides and fertilizers, just to keep these crops alive and profitable.
Monocrop cultures are also responsible for the genetic erosion of plant diversity. In short, certain grains, vegetables, and fruits, because of their look, durability, and growth success, are favored over other types of species of the same plants. This genetic erosion has caused our worldwide bio-diversity to dramatically decline and be replaced by a few high yielding varieties. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 75 % of crop diversity was lost during the last century. Seventy percent of the world’s corn, 75% of Asian rice, and 50% of the wheat in Africa, Latin America, and Asia have been replaced with only a single variety of each grain. An example of genetic erosion is the fact that India had about 30,000 types of wild rice in 1950, but is expected to only have 50 left by 2015. The preservation of genetic diversity in our plant breeding is necessary in order to protect crop resilience to pest, disease, drought, and adaptability to different climates (or sudden climate changes) and soils. It will also help to maintain soil and crop nutrients, which are necessary for our health and wellbeing.
One obvious example of missing nutrients is in humate levels. Humates (fulvic and humic acids) are formed from the biological and chemical breakdown of plant and animal matter over millions of years, and are rich in trace minerals, such as antimony, beryllium, boron, bromine, calcium, carbon, chloride, dysprosium, erbium, geranium, indium, iodine, iron, magnesium, osmium, phosphorous, potassium, rhodium, samarium, selenium, silicon, tantalum, thulium, zinc. They are also rich in amino acids and Vitamins A, B, B-12, B-3, B-6, and E. Humates, found in soils, are crucial for the growth of every single plant on Earth by providing them with essential nutrients and energy. In turn, people indirectly absorb the vital nutrients provided by humates through ingesting vegetation. Monocrops, growing the same crops year after year on the same land, strip the land of humates, causing crops to have significantly less nutritional value. Some of the countless vegetables that have seen a significant decline in their nutritional value include broccoli, turnips, kale, spinach, onions, squash, peppers, asparagus, cabbage, carrots, cantaloupe, tomatoes, strawberries, onions, celery, and watermelon.
Soil Erosion and Desertification
Soil erosion and desertification go hand-in-hand and have become a growing problem worldwide. Soil erosion occurs when plant roots are not present to hold top soils together, which are then blown away by winds or washed away by rains. When monocrops are grown, they are all planted and harvested at the same time. For months at a time, there is no agriculture present in the fields. During this time, the top soil is not being anchored to the Earth and is at the mercy of damaging weather conditions. It is estimated that soil erosion has already destroyed a third of the world’s farmable land over the last forty years. Fertile, farmable soil is swept away, leaving baron, unfarmable land.
Desertification can also be the result of growing crops in semi-arid environments. In areas such as these, planted crops take nutrients out of the soil, and nothing is returned back to keep it fertile. The arid conditions and the lack of flora are a recipe for soil erosion. The land quickly becomes useless and barren. Desertification is currently a threat to approximately 1/3 of all the world’s land surfaces. Drastic changes in weather patterns and global warming add to the occurrence of desertification and soil erosion.
Although desertification is a threat to all continents, no other area has had such an immense impact on Africa. The problem lies in the agricultural practices that have been adopted by African societies. Traditionally, farmers cleared land, grew crops, and then allowed the land to lie fallow for 10 to 15 years. In tropical areas, multiple crops were planted amongst each other, which returned much of the nutrients back into the soil. However, as the population increased, so did the need for food, and monocrop practices were adopted. Land was soon stripped of its nutrients, and after a couple seasons the lands became barren, lifeless soil. Many experts believe that if this trend continues, Africa will eventually lose its ability to grow food completely.
Desertification is an issue that has hit home for many Americans too. Recently, the US has been experiencing a change in weather patterns, which are threatening the production of crops throughout the Mid-West. The lack of rain has created desert-like conditions during the summer months, causing crops to fail and immense amounts of soil loss due to wind erosion. This is reminiscent of the Dust Bowl experienced during the 1930s, and leaves the future of US food supplies in a fragile state.
Pesticides and the Environment
The consequences of over farming go beyond that of directly affecting crops. The use of pesticides has created a dangerous cycle of reliance. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 2 billion kilograms of pesticides are sprayed on US crops each year, and an additional 10 billion are applied to crops worldwide, and have created a trend commonly referred to as the “pesticide treadmill.” As we use these chemicals to rid our crops of pests, we also kill off their natural enemies. Each year, about 67 million birds are killed as the indirect result of pesticides. Insects, which often become resistant to these deadly chemicals, bio-accumulate large amounts of pesticides in their bodies. Birds that naturally feed on these bugs are poisoned and die soon after ingesting these critters. The death of these natural enemies and the growing resistance to pesticides calls for additional pesticides to be applied to crops, inevitably increasing the amount of chemicals dumped into the environment and adding to the toxicity of our food supply.
Furthermore, pesticide runoff is responsible for soil erosion and polluting ground waters and other bodies of water, such as coral reefs, bays, lakes, swamps, and streams. Very low amounts of pesticides in water have been linked to the increase mortality of young amphibians and fish. These toxic chemicals also bio-accumulate in aquatic life and are passed down to offspring and/or whatever predators-pelicans, seals, bears, eagles, otters, etc.- that may feed on them. The depleted population of the Bald Eagle is a perfect example of how pesticides easily destroy nature, and was directly linked to the toxic chemical DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane). DDT directly affected the nervous system of the bird, and caused their eggshells to become fatally thin. Though DDT was banned in the 1970s, and Bald Eagle populations have made a significant recovery, many animals and people still have DDT present within their bodies, including children who were born 20 to 30 years after the chemical’s ban.
Overall, a considerable amount of wildlife has been harmed by pesticides, which act as endocrine disrupters. Endocrine disruptors interfere with hormones that regulate development of an organism. These types of pesticides have been linked to deformities, impaired growth of sexual and immune organs, and are a direct threat to the survival of countless species, including dolphins, alligators, polar bears, and panthers.
Fertilizers and the Suffocation of Aquatic Ecosystems
Since the nutrients are being stripped out of soils from monocrop practices, the farming industry has become reliant on synthetic fertilizers. Over the last forty years, the industry has upped their use of synthetic fertilizers around seven to eight times. These fertilizers greatly add to the pollution of waterways, such as bays, lakes, swamps, rivers, and creeks, and are now recognized as the most threatening source of water pollution. Only about half of the fertilizer that is spread on crop soils is absorbed by plants. The other half leeches into ground water, tainting our waters with extremely high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. This causes eutrophication, wherein an explosion of algae and plant growth towards the top layer of the water, and block of needed sunlight for lower level plants. As these plants, along with the top level algae and plants, die off, the water become significantly deprived of oxygen, thus weakening and killing off aquatic animal life through suffocation. These areas are known as dead zones. There are over forty extremely large dead zones that have developed around the world. One includes the mouth of the Mississippi River, in which agricultural runoff from Iowa, Illinois, North and South Dakota, and Kansas accumulates. The size of this oxygen deprived area is comparable to the size of New Jersey.
Potential SolutionsIncreasing Diversity
Creating bio-diversity in farming is the biggest step that can be taken towards improving the agricultural industry. Soil erosion and loss of nutrients can be protected against through a couple of different practices. One is to plow the land less, which will prevent soils from become so loose and blowing away. Another solution is to grow a diverse range of crops on the same piece of land, which will prevent against erosion and will feed nutrients back into the soil. An easy way to accomplish this is through alternating rows of various plants so that there is a constant growth of vegetation, and/or by mixing in cover crops, perennial crops, or strips of trees and native plant species. This will allow for nutrients to be added back into the land via decaying plant matter, as well as providing plant roots that will always hold the soil together. Also, rotating crops and land will allow the soil to rest and replenish its nutrients. This system of agriculture has been used for thousands of years, and has only recently has been abandoned for unsuccessful modern day industrial practices.
Furthermore, it is suggested that plants that can survive in a hot, arid climate be planted on lands that have signs of desertification. The thought is that by adding plants back into the land, nutrients may be added into the soil through decomposing plant matter while combating soil erosion.
Eliminating Agricultural Chemicals
There are a number of methods that can be used to eliminate the need for pesticides without adding more toxins to the environment. Certain plants are natural deterrents for insects and help reduce diseases in other plants. Crop covers and mulches are also effective ways to protect agriculture from being overrun with weeds. Furthermore, certain insects, bacteria, and fungi can be added to the land, without doing any harm to the crops, in order to eliminate unwanted pests, while also adding needed nutrients to the soil.
Many argue against abandoning pesticides, and going organic, because they are scared that the yield of organic crops will greatly diminish their output and profit. Yet, growing organically, with diverse crops, has shown just the opposite to occur. This is especially true in tropical areas, where plant diversity is the greatest. In Indonesia and Vietnam, reliance on pesticides have dropped by as much as 72% and rice crop yields have increased. Pesticides and fertilizers have been reduced by 60-80% in Cuba, and have increased crop production to more than it produced 30 years ago. Most impressively, Brazil increased food production by 176% and now exports soybeans, wheat, coffee, and oranges world-wide, all with less pesticide usage.
At the Consumer Level
There are steps that can be taken by consumers to influence our current agricultural system and government support for monocrops. For one, buy from local farmers. Many supermarkets will have a sign or section indicating which fruits and vegetables are grown locally. Also, make sure all the produce you buy is organic. This will reduce the presence of toxic pesticides in your body, and will lessen the bio-accumulation of these poisons in the environment. Additionally, petition the government to change their support and funding for corporate monocrop farms. The US government gives heavy funding for the promotion of corn and wheat. Let them know that you support farms that have a wide range of biodiversity and do not rely on pesticides and artificial fertilizers. This change may come about slowly, but the only way it starts is with the desires and support of the nation’s people. In the produce section, look for labels that ensure the food was grown organically and on a biodiverse farm. Lastly, taking health supplements to replace the loss nutrients and plant diversity in our diets has become more and more common.