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Blog item: Monoculture or Polyculture

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2 comments, last: Jan-28-2009   Add a comment   Author:  PT (Dec-17-2008)    Play a Video
Categories: Economic/Financial, Sustainable Living, Wildlife and Nature

American elm treeI would like to share with others who have even less exposure to agricultural wisdom than I do, and also farmers who know better but who need to follow the pressures of the percieved marketplace.  The issue is monoculture farming, which dominates the modern industrial farming techniques that currently feed the world.  Let me start by talking about trees, and then I will connect the dots.

I remember as a child in elementary school in the 1960s they told us about Dutch elm disease, that was marching through the country killing all the elm trees.  I learned recently that some variants of elm trees can resist the disease, and are being planted in places, though nowhere near as dominant as the original elms were throughout American cities.  There were three problems that made Dutch elm disease so destructive:

1) imported fungus, likely from Asia not Holland (but discovered and labeled in Holland) for which there was no natural resistance or counter-bacteria in the United States

2) monoculture of trees (genetically identical) planted throughout the cities that were developed by people, as opposed to the natural mixing of tree species, and elm sub-species, that would occur naturally over a large area

3) trees planted too close together so the disease spread easily

This is a lesson that applies tremendously well to our modern agriculture, which focuses more and more on monocultures. 

For example, we are in process of losing the second form of banana, the so-called Cavendish species, eaten the world over but under destruction currently.  That is an example of monoculture throughout the mainstream banana industry.  There was a superior banana variant, the Gros Michel, that dominated world production before 1960 and tasted far better than the Cavendish but that was also destroyed by a disease, Panama disease, in the 1940s and 1950s.  The difficulty is now to find a replacement species that ripens in a certain way, can be harvested and shipped, and that will meet the taste requirements of those who eat them.  Currently, there is no replacement candidate that meets the criteria met so well originally by the Gros Michel banana.  Believe it or not, the scientific, economic, social, and military history of banana production is fascinating.

But on a larger stage, the question that needs to be posed is: are our corn, wheat, rice, soy beans, and other monoculture crops, vulnerable?  If so, any disease striking them could have devastating effects on world food supply. What have we done, if anything to prevent or prepare for that risk?

Michael Pollan, bloggerAn excellent article on permaculture, or sustainable agriculture, points out many of the factors affecting today's worldwide food supply.  There are tie-ins to peak oil, climate change, and the genetics of monoculture that make our current system of food production quite vulnerable.

As we approach Darwin's 200th birthday, and the 150th birthday of the publishing of Origin of the Species, we should make sure to learn the lessons of genetic diversity as a means of enhanced survival and strength.  This applies to our food supplies. Unfortunately at this time, the lessons of biodiversity are being ignored by the mainstream economists and political leaders who are charged with creating an agriculture system that is not only productive but resilient under a variety of threats and changes in climatic or predator conditions.

This is one of the issues that must at some point be confronted by any national leadership that truly wishes to protect the citizens whom they represent.

Related reading:
  Resistance Is Ripe! Agriculture Action Day (Dec-15-2009)
  If Nothing Else, Save Farming (Nov-24-2009)
  What goes around, comes around? (Aug-17-2009)
  We Make the Road by Walking - White Oak Farm CSA (Feb-7-2009)
  Animal, Vegetable... Minerals, Vitamins, Environ... (Jan-18-2009)
  EU admits failure to protect biodiversity (Jan-5-2009)
  Inventing for the Sustainable Planet, Chapter 15 (Dec-8-2008)
  TED and Louise Leakey: Digging for humanity's or... (Dec-2-2008)
  Soil Erosion Threatens Land of 100 Million Chine... (Nov-22-2008)
  Agriculture: Unsustainable Resource Depletion Be... (Nov-5-2008)

Click one tag to see readings related specifically to that tag; click "Tags" to see all related readings
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Comment by:  PT (David Alexander) (Jan-28-2009)   Web site
I have heard about the pesticide suicide problem for women (and maybe some men?) in rural India and China. I think political and business "leaders" are so swept up with their contributors and supporters that they do not look closely at the issues. They are focused on their power and money realities, not on science and rarely on the details of health issues. I can't believe that Gates or the Clintons would intentionally be part of this problem of monocultures and pesticides, but their engagement with our current system of lobbying means they have little time or motivation to question the Monsanto and similar programs. It truly is sad to be running over the alternative lifestyles and cultures (as Daniel Quinn writes in 'Ishmael' and other books) with the equivalent of a Mac truck, rather than hearing about them and exploring their advantages. The end result, from what I read, is toxic soils that can only grow with massive artificial fertilizers and more pesticides.
Comment by: MarySaunders (Mary Saunders) (Jan-28-2009)   

Unfortunately, the new secretary of agriculture is identified with monoculture and genetic engineering. What's more, the Gates Foundation is peopled with revolving-door executives from Monsanto, and they are planning to "help" Africa with their massive resources. In the meantime, pesticides are a way of suicide for women in rural China when they are abandoned by men moving to the cities, and Vandana Shiva has documented massive suicides in India when the advertised promises don't pan out and farmers end up bankrupted. Perhaps you know this history, but it is very upsetting. Hilary Clinton also has a history with Monsanto. Some western companies tried to steal and patent neem, an ancient plant used in India as a pesticide but for many other uses as well. This is a huge problem that Obama seems unwilling to address, for obvious reasons. Europeans are starting to ban some pesticides, and increasing numbers of Americans would rather pay more than increase their cancer risk so drastically. Research on banning pesticides and dropping of cancer rates has been done in Israel. The use of pesticides began with the Germans during WWII, as it has been explained to me. Pesticides are made from the left-overs of the oil industry, as are many pharmaceuticals. I can't track-back, but I would be interested in your comments.

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About author/contributor Member: PT (David Alexander) PT (David Alexander)
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Member: PT (David Alexander) My lifelong pursuit, since age 18, has been to live more fully and find wisdom. This has involved studies with Zen masters, Tai Chi masters, and great psychotherapists while achieving my license as a gestalt therapist and psychoanalyst.

Along the way, I became aware of how the planet is under great stress due to the driven nature of human activity on this planet.

I believe that the advancement of human well-being will reduce societies addictive behaviors, and will thus also help preserve the environment and perhaps slow down the effects of global warming and other major threats to the health of human societies.

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