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Monoculture

Driving through the British countryside, you'll probably see countless fields filled with bright yellow flowers, stretching as far as the eye can see. The yellow plant is rapeseed, the UK's third most important crop after wheat and barley. It's used to make rapeseed oil (known as canola oil in North America), which earns £700 million per year.

Monocultures, rapeseed field monoculture, StudySmarterFigure 1 – A rapeseed field in spring. Unsplash

Rapeseed is typically grown in monocultures, meaning that the field contains only rapeseed plants and nothing else. The monocultural cultivation strategy is what makes them instantly recognisable, from the ground and from above! Focus on this single article to find out more about monoculture plantations, monoculture crops, and more.


Monoculture: Definition

Let's begin with a definition.

Monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in a given area.

Monocultures are the antithesis of polycultures – simultaneous cultivation of crops or animals on the same piece of land.

Monoculture Plantations

What are the characteristics of monoculture plantations?

Features of Monocultures

To be classified as a monoculture, a plantation must fulfil three criteria:

  • It is large

  • It focuses on a single product

  • It caters to distant markets

Monoculture plantations cover large areas of agricultural land with a single crop. Typically, the plantations contain just one variety of said crop, with almost no variation.

Agricultural Shift to Monocultures

Monocultures differ significantly from traditional subsistence farming.

Subsistence farming is the practice of only growing crops for oneself and their family.

Subsistence farmers grew multiple crops to feed their families. Most excess was stored as a safeguard for the future; excess crops were only sold if the farmer had an excellent harvest.

Monocultures became increasingly prevalent after 1945. Improvements in transport provided access to distant markets, making it increasingly profitable to specialise.

80% of the UK's food is imported, much of it grown in monocultures abroad.

Monocultures, coffee beans import distant markets, StudySmarterFigure 2 – The UK climate can't support the growth of coffee beans, so the country imports them from abroad. Since the 1960s, most coffee plantations grow using monoculture techniques. Unsplash

Monoculture Plantations in the UK

In the 1970s, wheat monocultures took over from traditional crop rotation.

Crop rotation is the practice of growing different crops on the same field in a several-year cycle.

In the 1700s, Charles “Turnip” Townshend introduced a four-field crop rotation system to the UK.

  1. Food: wheat was grown for human consumption. Wheat's productivity was at its highest after growing nitrogen-fixing clover the year before.
  2. Drink: barley was grown for brewing beer. Other uses included livestock feed and cheap grain.
  3. Turnips: during winter months, turnips were grown for livestock fodder.
  4. Clover: during the final year, nitrogen-fixing clover was grown on the field. It was used for livestock grazing – it provided a nutritious alternative to grass, and livestock manure added nutrients to the soil, supporting wheat growth the following year.

Crop rotation produced higher yields, so what drove this change?

  • Consumer demands and market prices

  • Government incentives for high productivity, which could be maximised using monoculture plantations

  • Increasing costs of specialised equipment, making it more expensive to grow multiple crops

  • Intensification of agriculture

  • Continuous cropping, enabling a harvest every season

Monoculture Crops

Three major crops – corn, soybean, and wheat – are often grown in monocultures around the world.

CropUsesTop Producing Nation
Corn
  • Food – source of fibre
  • Livestock feed
  • Sweeteners
  • Industrial oil
  • Bioethanol
The United States produces more corn than any other nation, producing around 350 million metric tonnes annually.
Soybean
  • Food – source of protein
  • Livestock feed
  • Cooking oil
  • Biodiesel
Brazil recently overtook the US as the leading producer of soybeans, cultivating 138 million metric tonnes in 2021.
Wheat
  • Food – source of carbohydrates
  • Livestock feed
  • Alcoholic beverages
China is the world's largest wheat producer, producing around 135 million metric tonnes annually.

Advantages of Monocultures

What are the advantages of growing crops in monoculture plantations?

  • Specialised Production: equipment tailored to a harvesting specific crop saves time and reduces the demand for manual labour.
  • Consistent Costs: growing the same crop every year means that the price of seeds, equipment, and fertiliser remains relatively predictable. Plus, farmers don't need to seek new suppliers.

  • Government Subsidies: crops produced on monoculture plantations are often subsidised by the government. The subsidisation takes the form of insurance, guaranteeing a minimum selling price despite any decline in market value. Without subsidies, it would be impractical to grow just one crop.

The US government subsidises corn, soy, wheat, and rice. One-fifth of the income of American farmers comes from government payouts.

  • Simplicity: growing just one crop at a time is easier to manage, and saves farmers time and money.

  • High Efficiency and Yields: focusing on one profitable crop enabled high production efficiency, resulting in high yields.

Dangers and Disadvantages of Monoculture

Despite the economic and yield advantages, growing crops in monocultures is unsustainable, and can have detrimental effects on the environment.

Earlier, we learnt that monoculture plantations regularly contain just one variety of crop, with very little genetic diversity. This gives them a high susceptibility to pests and diseases.

Bananas are the world's most popular fruit. The UK eats 5 billion every year!

These beloved fruits almost went extinct in the 1950s. Most bananas at the time were the Gros Michel variety, bigger than modern-day bananas with a stronger flavour. However, almost all of them were wiped out by Fusarium wilt, a fungal pathogen also known as Panama Disease.

Cavendish bananas (the modern variety) aren't in the clear. They've been bred without seeds, so they can only be reproduced by taking cuttings from a parent plant. This makes them genetically identical to the previous generation. The low genetic diversity of Cavendish bananas means that they cannot develop resistance to diseases or pests. A new strain of pathogens could change the fruit forever.

Monocultures, bananas low genetic diversity dangers of monocultures, StudySmarterFigure 3 – Cavendish bananas. Unsplash

As a result of their increased susceptibility to pests and disease, monoculture plantations rely heavily on pesticides and insecticides. This creates a multitude of problems:

  • Environmental pollution of waterways, harming aquatic life and leading to eutrophication

  • Health problems in the children of farmworkers, such as cognitive impairment, infertility, and increased cancer risks

  • Increasing rates of resistance to pesticides and insecticides

  • Harming pollinators

Monocultures reduce the amount of organic matter in soil, and can lead to erosion. The soil is less able to absorb rainwater, leading to flooding and an increased need for irrigation. Impoverished monoculture soils support a lower biodiversity than other cropping strategies.

Solution to Monoculture: Polycultures

An alternative to monoculture plantations are polycultures. Do you remember them from earlier? If not, here's the definition.

Polyculture is the simultaneous cultivation of multiple crops in a given area.

Another term for polycultures is intercropping.

Monocultures, aerial polyculture alternative, StudySmarterFigure 4 – An aerial view of a polyculture system in Vietnam. A variety of crops are grown in close proximity. Unsplash

Advantages of Polycultures

  • Reduced demand for fertiliser

  • Maximises resource use of space and time

  • Increases soil fertility

  • Stores carbon

  • Increased genetic diversity

  • Enhanced protection from pests and diseases

The Three Sisters planting method originates from Native American agriculture. Sweetcorn, beans, and squash are grown in close proximity. The plants support each other's growth, and a single planting provides a balanced diet of protein, carbohydrates, and fibres.

Cornstalks provides physical support for bean growth.

Beans take nitrogen from the soil and bring it to the soil, providing nutrients for the growth of all three plants.

The large, prickly squash leaves protect the three plants from pests, and keep the soil cool and moist.


I hope that this article has explained monocultures for you. Remember that monocultures are the cultivation of a single crop in a given area. They are efficient and easy to manage, but lead to soil degradation and heavy reliance on chemicals.

Monoculture - Key takeaways

  • A monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in a given area.
  • Monoculture plantations are large, focus on a single product, and cater to a distant market. After 1945, new transport methods opened up access to distant markets, leading to a shift towards monocultural agriculture.
  • Three crops often grown in monocultures are corn, soybeans, and wheat.
  • Growing crops in monocultures brings management and economic benefits. However, crops in monocultures have little genetic diversity, making them susceptible to diseases and pests. Furthermore, monocultures degrade soil and affect pollination.
  • An alternative to monocultures is polycultures – cultivating multiple crops simultaneously in an area. They maximise resource use, increase soil fertility, and the plants work together for growth and protection.

1. Allison Balogh, The rise and fall of monoculture farming, Horizon, 2021

2. Carol M. Kopp, The World's 6 Biggest Corn Producers, Investopedia, 2021

3. Discovering Britain, Britain from the Air – Rape Fields, 2022

4. Ellen McHale, Bananas under threat, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, 2020

5. Jim Edwards, Say goodbye to tea and carrots: 80% of British food is imported so there will be food shortages if there's a no-deal Brexit, HSBC tells clients, Insider, 2019

6. Kashish Rastogi, These are the top 10 countries that produce the most wheat, World Economic Forum, 2022

7. M. Shahbandeh, Soybean production worldwide 2012/13-2021/22, by country, Statista, 2022

8. Ocean Robbins, Monocropping: A Disastrous Agricultural System, Food Revolution Network, 2022

Frequently Asked Questions about Monoculture

A monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in a given area.

Monoculture leads to a reduction in biodiversity due to soil erosion and pollution from insecticides and pesticides.

Monocultures became increasingly prevalent after 1945. Improvements in transport provided access to distant markets, making it increasingly profitable to specialise.

Monoculture is unsustainable. It relies heavily on chemicals which leads to pollution, reduces organic matter in soil, and reduces soil biodiversity.

Monocultures have a very low genetic diversity, making them highly susceptible to pests and diseases. As a result, farmers rely heavily on pesticides and insecticides.

Final Monoculture Quiz

Question

Define monoculture.

Show answer

Answer

Monoculture is the cultivation of a single crop in a given area.

Show question

Question

What are the criteria for a plantation to be considered a monoculture?

Show answer

Answer

The plantation must be large, it must focus on one crop, and it must cater to a distant market.

Show question

Question

Define subsistence farming.

Show answer

Answer

Subsistence farming is the practice of only growing crops for oneself and their family.

Show question

Question

How much of the UK's food is imported?

Show answer

Answer

80%

Show question

Question

Define crop rotation.

Show answer

Answer

Crop rotation is the practice of growing different crops on the same field in a several-year cycle.

Show question

Question

Which country grows the most corn?

Show answer

Answer

The United States

Show question

Question

What is the role of government subsidies in funding monocultures?

Show answer

Answer

Government subsidises takes the form of insurance, guaranteeing a minimum selling price despite any decline in market value. 

Show question

Question

What are two advantages of growing crops in monocultures?

Show answer

Answer

Consistent costs

Show question

Question

Why do monocultures rely on chemicals like pesticides and insecticides?

Show answer

Answer

Monocultures have a low genetic diversity, making them susceptible to pests and diseases.

Show question

Question

Monocultures lead to soil erosion.

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Answer

True

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Question

What are some health problems associated with the use of pesticides and insecticides?

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Answer

Children of farmworkers are prone to cognitive impairment, infertility, and increased cancer risks.

Show question

Question

Define polyculture.

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Answer

Polyculture is the simultaneous cultivation of multiple crops in a given area.

Show question

Question

Which plants are grown together using the Three Sisters method?

Show answer

Answer

Sweetcorn, beans, and squash are grown together using the Three Sisters method.

Show question

Question

Monoculture plantations do not used specialised equipment.

Show answer

Answer

False

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Question

What is wheat used for?

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Answer

Livestock feed

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