Monocultures — the single greatest threat to our food source (and our lives)

There is almost an unimaginable number of foods in the world and of that unimaginable number, an unfathomable amount of variety exists. We not be able to eat them all, in fact some estimates put the number as low as 20,000, but about 20 species of plant (0.1%) make up 90% of our diet. These twenty plants could be described as a monoculture and they could very well spell our doom.

I’ve briefly touched on the challenges facing one monoculture, the coffee plant coffea arabica so here I want to focus on the world’s favourite fruit, the banana, specifically, the Cavendish variety, the species responsible for the majority of the world’s banana exports.

Named after William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, a county in England, Cavendish used his connections and the vast trading routes of the British Empire to export the bananas, after he himself received it from Republic of Mauritius, a British colony at the time.

The Cavendish

And thus, began a love affair that would change the world. It would take until 1903 before the Cavendish was produced on a mass scale, after the variety known as Gros Michel or Big Mike, it’s self a monoculture, fell victim to a disease. The Cavendish could grow in the same soil and seemed to be resistant to the disease and so its reign began. Today the Cavendish is world’s favourite fruit and is almost the only banana variety available in much of the United States and Europe.

All over the world, throughout time, a similar story unfolds. As humans settled into a more agricultural lifestyle, we needed to be able to control the environment and produce we grew. Certain species of plants were less susceptible to disease, produced more produce or stayed fresh for longer and so were selected above all others.

This raises a natural problem though, one that’s becoming more and more prominent as Climate Change continues to affect the planet. What do you do if that species comes under threat?

In the case of the banana, this is becoming an ever more pressing issue. The same disease that affected The Gros Michel variety has adapted to the Cavendish and in some regions whole crops have been lost. History, it seems, is doomed to repeat itself.

The trickle-down effects of this are huge. The largest banana producing nations, India, China, Ecuador, Philippines, Brazil and Columbia, to name just a few, have entire sections of their economy based on the Cavendish Banana. The cash crop contributes significantly to the economies of these countries, both by employing millions worldwide and contributing to global economic health through spending.

This is to say nothing of the rise in cost that would arise from these losses. Or the strife a potentially bad harvest could cause in some emerging nations.

You may think this is an isolated case, but unfortunately monocultures are the rule, not the exception. It isn’t just disease that threatens these plants, climate change plays a part both directly and indirectly. Draughts become more common, sea levels rise, and once prosperous land become arid as a result. Many studies also suggest it indirectly extends the breeding seasons and prominence of certain insects that damage and destroy these crops, causing yet more losses.

Unsustainable fertilising

As a response to this, many farmers have been driven to using more and more aggressive pesticides, but this too will have negative long-term effects. Counter intuitively, the more one uses pesticides, the less effective they become. Nature simply adapts and so called ‘superweeds’ are now spreading through our endless fields of monoculture crops, wreaking havoc for farmer and consumer alike.

Bananas are an important crop for sure, but it would be a stretch to say humanity would be at risk as a whole if a disease suddenly wiped them out. If it was rice though, or maize (corn) or perhaps wheat? Then things become much more dire.

Victims of the famine

For an example of this, we need look no further than Ireland 1845–1849, known by the Irish as An Drochshaol (literally ‘the bad life’), the rest of the world would come to know it as the Irish Potato Famine. A single variety, known as the ‘Irish Lumper’ was cultivated during this time, a monoculture. The arrival of the potato blight led to the decimated the Irish economy, led to uprisings and reprisals on both sides, brutal conflict and the division of Irish society. 1 million people died during the potato blight, a further 1.5 million people emigrated across the world.

This is the impact that monocultures can have on our society. The population in Ireland has yet to recover to its pre-blight levels. Today, with our even more interconnected world, the results of such a blight could be far greater reaching, and far worse.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom here, but the solution is surprisingly simply, if a little difficult to implicate. By diversifying our food supply, we might just mitigate the potential effects of monocultures on our society. Plants are evolutionarily suited to their local environment, and by allowing regional diversity, we return to a more natural way of agriculture and of eating. There are more than a 1,000 species of banana, I refuse to believe the Cavendish is the be all and end all of bananas.

Likewise, more efficient sourcing and usage of water and land, crop rotation and the reduction of food waste will have a massive effect in mitigating the effects of monocultures. It is much easier for world food production to come back from a 1% loss than a 40% one, but by relying so heavily on certain crops, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.

As a consumer it can often feel as if we have no power to change what’s offered to us. We walk into the grocery store and only have access to what they’re selling us. What we fail to realise though is that we have a symbiotic relationship with these stores. They only sell us the same things we see over and over again because that’s what we want. Why sell 10 varieties of banana if people only ever buy one? But our spending habits have the power to change what’s available to us.

Demands for lactose-free, vegan, and gluten-free products in recent years have led to companies and grocery stores embracing them; the same could be true for a more diverse choice of produce. By buying local, from a more sustainable source, larger corporations, the real instigators of our dependence on monocultures, will be forced to adapt and change their sourcing and outlook. Public opinion and pressure are powerful tools that we underestimate. They’ve been responsible for laws prohibiting grocery stores from throwing away food, forcing them instead to give it to food bank. They’ve led to more healthy choices, easy to understand nutritional information and greater focus on the environment as a whole.

Put simply, if we all choose to diversify our food sources, the companies are forced to adapt with us, benefiting all in the process.

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