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Monocropping

Imagine you're hiking through a forest, and you begin to notice that every single tree looks the same. You then look down at your feet to see only soil—no shrubs, no flowers. You might begin to feel a bit unsettled...where did all the other plants and animals go?

Unless you've hiked through a monocropped tree plantation, this has likely never happened to you. It's very uncommon to find a natural environment where only one type of plant is growing. The practice of monocropping has intensified agriculture through the planting of a single crop type. But what happens when other organisms are removed from the agricultural ecosystem? Read on to learn why monocropping is used and how it negatively impacts the environment.

Agricultural Geography, monocropped field, monocropping definition StudySmarterFig. 1 - Monocropped field with potatoes.

Monocropping Definition

The industrialization of agriculture began during the Second Agricultural Revolution and was further developed as part of the Green Revolution that later occurred in the 1950s and 60s. The shift to this commercialization of agriculture and export-driven crop production required a spatial reorganization of agriculture.

This readjustment often came in the form of monocropping, a practice that is now widely executed across the world. It is most common to find monocropping practiced on large scales, in contrast to smaller family farms or subsistence agriculture.

Monocropping is the practice of growing a single crop variety in the same field for consecutive seasons.

Natural environments typically have a variety of plants growing, and the lack of biodiversity in monocropping means that many of the functions provided by diverse plant and soil interactions must be supplemented with fertilizers and pesticides. While monocropping has undoubtedly allowed cash crop production to become more standardized through mechanization, it has brought with it many impacts on agricultural soils and the greater environment.

Monocropping vs Monoculture

Monocropping involves continuously planting the same crop for multiple seasons, while monoculture is planting a field with a single crop for a season.

An organic farm may choose to grow only squash plants in one field—this is monoculture. But next season, they instead plant only kale in that same field. Once again, this is monoculture but not monocropping because of the crop rotation that occurred between seasons.

Continuous monoculture is equivalent to monocropping, and the two often go together in industrialized agriculture. However, it is possible to practice monoculture without practicing monocropping.

Benefits of Monocropping

The benefits of monocropping are primarily related to increases in efficiency.

Standardization

In monocropping, standardization is achieved through the planting of a single crop variety and through mechanization. Just as an assembly line can streamline production in a factory, monocropping allows for farming practices to be standardized all for a single crop. As a result, labor and capital efficiency are increased.

Selecting a single crop variety is essential to standardization in monocropping. By selecting only one seed variety, all practices from sowing to harvesting can be optimized for the growth of that one crop variety. This also allows for machinery to be specialized for a single crop.

Both the winter squash (in red) and butternut squash (in yellow) are in the same genus (Cucurbita) and can be planted at similar times of the year. However, they can reach maturity and need to be harvested at different times, making standardization difficult when they are grown together.

Agricultural Geography, squash varieties, benefits of monocropping StudySmarterFig. 2 - Two squash varieties (Cucurbita maxima in red and Cucurbita moschata in yellow).

A farmer investing in expensive farm machinery only has to buy specialized equipment for sowing, spraying, irrigating, and harvesting a single crop variety. This simplification can greatly reduce capital costs.

In addition, mechanization results in reduced labor costs. A field with five different crops growing at once is likely too complex for harvesting with large machinery; as a result, many hours of manual labor might be necessary. Every seed can be planted with precision and in a standardized fashion, making later processes of fertilizing and harvesting more straightforward and less labor-intensive.

Agricultural Geography, farm machinery, benefits of monocropping StudySmarterFig. 3 - This row-crop cultivator relies on consistent row measurements to remove weeds with greater efficiency than manual labor.

Land Use Efficiency

The standardization involved in monocropping can result in increased land-use efficiency. Every inch of a single plot of land can be optimized for maximized yields, which can reduce the overall need for agricultural land. Ideally, this frees up that land for alternate uses or natural vegetation. The price of land is a noteworthy cost for commercial farmers to consider, so increased land-use efficiency is another economically attractive benefit of monocropping.

While land-use efficiency can increase with monocropping, this does not necessarily mean that yields will always be maximized. Keep reading to find out more about some of the nuances of monocropping yields.

Disadvantages of Monocropping

The benefits of increased efficiency in monocropping do not come without a host of concerning disadvantages.

Reliance on Agrochemicals

Agrochemical fertilizers and pesticides are applied to supplement the lost services provided by soil microbes and the larger food web. These agrochemicals can cause the accumulation of heavy metals in soil and can pollute water through runoff.

Soil microbes are responsible for decomposing organic matter and releasing those locked-up nutrients for plant absorption. Reducing plant diversity to just one crop variety in monocropping disrupts the symbiotic plant-soil microbe relationships that control nutrient availability. As a result, overall soil health is compromised and nutrients must be supplemented with agrochemical fertilizers. These can be very costly inputs for farmers.

In addition to providing plants with nutrients, symbiotic microbes offer plants protection from soil pathogens. Because these symbiotic relationships become strained with only one crop variety present, pathogens can more easily infect plants. Monocropping also increases the vulnerability of the crop to other types of pests, as the lack of plant diversity disrupts local food chains and predator-prey relationships.

Soil Erosion

Monocropping is known to degrade soil health over time, which contributes to increased rates of soil loss through erosion. The use of heavy machinery in tilling, planting, fertilizing, and harvesting causes soil to become compacted. The reduced pore space in the soil then leads to increased water runoff, as water is unable to percolate down into the compacted soil.

In addition, machinery and the use of agrochemicals break down soil aggregates into smaller and smaller sizes. Smaller soil aggregates are then more susceptible to being carried away by the increased water runoff caused by compaction.

Agricultural Geography, soil erosion, disadvantages of monocropping StudySmarterFig. 4 - Soil piles have formed at the edge of this monocropped field due to erosion. Runoff water travels down the dugout furrows between crop rows and carries away soil.

Furthermore, soil erosion can be accelerated when soil is left bare after harvest season and before planting occurs. With no cover crop roots holding the soil in place, bare fields create conditions where erosion is greatly increased. As soil is continually lost to erosion in monocropping, the organic matter and nutrients supplied by the soil must be supplemented.

Crop Yields and Genetic Diversity

Because commercial agricultural practices like monocropping have proliferated in recent decades, the overall genetic diversity of crops has been greatly reduced. Genetic diversity in crops allows for natural variations to occur, as plants with different characteristics reproduce with each other and pass on favorable traits to their offspring. This process of recombination drives the ability of crop plants to adapt to local environmental conditions and stresses like droughts.

In monocropping, if a drought causes crop failure, there are no backup crops to rely on. The entire yield could be lost, and food security can be compromised as a result. With greater crop diversity, complete yield loss is much less likely; some crops may be affected by the drought, while others survive. Even in the absence of environmental stressors, monocropping does not always lead to greater yields when compared to practices with multiple crops in one field.1

Monocropping Examples

The environmental destabilization caused by monocropping has resulted in numerous social impacts throughout the history of this agricultural practice.

Irish Potato Famine

The Irish Potato Famine refers to the period between 1845 and 1850 when around one million Irish people died from starvation and disease due to a pest outbreak that plagued potato crops.

Potatoes were a cash crop in Ireland, and monocropping was used to maximize potato production. Fields of potatoes were planted in proximity to one another, which proved disastrous in aiding the potato blight pathogen, P. infestans, to spread rapidly.2 Entire yields were lost to P. infestans, and food insecurity increased with no backup crops to rely on.

Maize

Maize was first domesticated in southern Mexico. Maize is important both as a food source and as a cultural symbol, appearing in the religions and legends of Indigenous groups in the region. Today, Mexico and Guatemala grow the highest diversity of maize in the world. However, monocropping has negatively affected the overall genetic diversity of maize crops.3

Agricultural Geography, maize varieties, monocropping examples StudySmarterFig. 5 - Many native maize varieties have been replaced with genetically engineered hybrids that are most often grown with monocropping.

The gradual loss of maize genetic diversity due to monocropping has led to reduced food varieties available in the market. Loss of genetic diversity of such a culturally important plant can have cascading effects on indigenous societies and cultures.

Monocropping - Key takeaways

  • Monocropping is a key practice in the shift to commercial agriculture and export-driven food production.
  • Standardization in monocropping can reduce capital and labor costs while increasing land-use efficiency.
  • Monocropping relies on the heavy use of agrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, which contribute to agricultural pollution and soil erosion.
  • Reduced genetic diversity in crops can lead to food insecurity.
  • The Irish Potato Famine is an example of how monocropping can lead to the rapid spread of pathogens in crops.

References

  1. Gebru, H. (2015). A review on the comparative advantages of intercropping to mono-cropping system. Journal of Biology, Agriculture and Healthcare, 5(9), 1-13.
  2. Fraser, Evan D. G. “Social Vulnerability and Ecological Fragility: Building Bridges Between Social and Natural Sciences Using the Irish Potato Famine as a Case Study.” Conservation Ecology, vol. 7, no. 2, 2003, pp. 9–9, https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-00534-070209.
  3. Ahuja, M. R., and S. Mohan. Jain. Genetic Diversity and Erosion in Plants : Indicators and Prevention. Springer International Publishing, 2015, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-25637-5.
  4. Fig. 1, Monocropping Field (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tractors_in_Potato_Field.jpg) by NightThree (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:NightThree) licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
  5. Fig. 2, Weed control machinery (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Einb%C3%B6ck_Chopstar_3-60_Hackger%C3%A4t_Row-crop_cultivator_Bineuse_013.jpg) by Einboeck licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)
  6. Fig. 4, Potato Field Soil Erosion (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_potato_field_with_soil_erosion.jpg) by USDA, Herb Rees and Sylvie Lavoie / Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about Monocropping

Monocropping is the practice of growing a single crop in the same field for consecutive seasons. 

Monocropping causes soil erosion through the use of agrochemicals that degrade soil aggregates and through increased runoff caused by the exposure of bare soil and soil compaction. 

Monocropping can lead to food insecurity because reduced crop variation makes crops more susceptible to pathogens or other stresses like drought. Entire yields can be lost with no backup crops to rely on for food security. 

Monocropping relies on the use of pesticides because a lack of crop diversity can disrupt local food chains, diminishing predator populations that normally keep pests controlled. In addition, the use of agrochemicals reduces the ability of soil microbes to protect crops from pathogens. 

Monoculture is the growing of a single crop in a field for a season, while monocropping is when this single crop is grown repeatedly in the same field for consecutive seasons. 

Final Monocropping Quiz

Question

Which of the following is not a reason driving the practice of monocropping?

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Answer

The need for practices that reduce soil erosion

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Question

How are monocropping and monoculture different?

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Answer

Monocropping is the continuous version of monoculture. Monocropping is for consecutive seasons, while monoculture can be for only one season. 

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Question

Which of the following is a benefit of monocropping?

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Answer

Increased land-use efficiency

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Question

True or False? Soil microbes can provide plants with protection from pathogens.

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Answer

True. Soil microbes can have symbiotic relationships with crop plants, where they provide a host of benefits to the plant, including protection from pathogens.

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Question

What are three ways in which monocropping contributes to increased soil erosion?

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Answer

  1. Bare soil with no cover crops in between seasons of growth
  2. Soil compaction from heavy machinery increases water runoff
  3. The breakdown of soil aggregates by agrochemicals

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Question

How did monocropping contribute to the Irish Potato Famine? 

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Answer

Potato fields were monocropped and were planted very close to one another, allowing potato blight to spread rapidly with disastrous effects on food security. 

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Question

Monocropping is most often practiced at what scale?

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Answer

Large-scale (hundreds of acres)

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Question

How can greater crop diversity reduce food insecurity?

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Answer

If one crop fails due to drought or some other environmental stress, other crops may survive and provide backup nutrition and income. 

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Question

True or False? Monocropping relies on agricultural technologies like heavy machinery. 

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Answer

True. Agricultural machinery allows for large fields to be planted efficiently and in a standardized way. 

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Question

The benefits of monocropping are primarily _______.

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Answer

Economic

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