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Defending the Proper Use of Monoculture

Posted by Andrew McGuire | September 27, 2016
Monoculture of dry edible beans. Photo: A. McGuire.
Monoculture of dry edible beans. Photo: A. McGuire.

Many bloggers have it wrong, Wikipedia had it wrong, and when I found that Agronomy Journal got it wrong, I was compelled to write on the topic once again. Monoculture is not the year-after-year production of the same crop in the same field. That is mono-cropping or continuous cropping, where the better alternative is crop rotation. Monoculture is “when only one crop species is grown in a field at a time” (Loomis and Connor, 1992), and the hard-to-manage alternative is polyculture or intercropping. You can take a picture of monoculture, but not of mono-cropping.

Just where this widespread misuse of “monoculture” started, I am not sure. It probably precedes the internet, and may have something to do with the similarity of monoculture and mono-cropping. More recently, Wikipedia played a part. For years it had a definition that combined the meanings of monoculture and mono-cropping. I suspect that this incorrect definition, and the fact that many people without agricultural backgrounds write about agriculture, has led to the widespread misuse we see today.

I am not about to trot off on some wild quest to correct this. My wife won’t let me:

Source: xkcd.com (permission granted on site)
Source: xkcd.com (permission granted on site)

But I like to think that the readers of this CSANR blog are a step above the browsing masses. So, the next time you want to talk about what is wrong with agriculture, don’t talk about monoculture. Almost all farmers use monoculture; organic, conventional, probably even celebrity farmers. Monocultures are what makes crop rotation work. If you want farmers to use more crop rotation, then decry mono-cropping. Monoculture has a specific meaning, one that no other word shares (that I can think of), so we’d best maintain it for future use.

 

Loomis, R.S., and D.J. Connor. 1992. Crop Ecology: Productivity and Management in Agricultural Systems. Cambridge University Press.

 

Update

I’ve found I was late to this issue. Here are some writers who addressed monoculture well before I did.

2 thoughts on "Defending the Proper Use of Monoculture"

  1. Steve Neason says:

    You are correct in your semantics. I would suggest that there is a matter of scale, however. 640 acres sown to the same crop creates a very different ecological landscape than 1,5, 10 or 40 acres sown to a particular crop does.

    And when any crop in any size field is “fencerow to fencerow” it constitutes a different ecology than if boundaries are left wild.

  2. Iida Ruishalme says:

    Hello!

    Thanks for this post. I only found out about the correct definition of monoculture a couple of years ago, and have since then experienced quite a lot of frustration in the way this word is used that time and again devaluates the information-content of many discussions.

    I wish anyone who wants to criticize farming methods would learn enough to do so in a more specific, detailed, and context-dependant manner.

    The last time I was in a discussion where monoculture was thrown out in vague and unhelpful manner was today just a few hours ago! I’ve written a piece on the topic as well, and it comforts me to know that others have also felt compelled to stay up late when someone is wrong on the internet. 🙂

    I am also very happy that two agricultural scientists, Andrew Kniss and Steve Savage had written pieces on the topic before me. They provide great clear and evidence-based sources of information for the agriculture-interested layman.

    If you are curious, my piece is here:
    https://thoughtscapism.com/2016/03/17/monocultures-the-great-evil-of-modern-ag/

    Have a great day.

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