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Sustainability issues in monocultural farming systems
2012-07-18 03:39:40
Monocultures are large areas of land cultivated with a single crop, using methods that imply a high use of inputs such as agro chemicals and machinery. Monoculture crops and plantations have a host of social and environmental problems associated with their cultivation. In the South, monoculture plantations are large-scale and often produce bulk products for the export market, not for local use.

Monocultures include crops (food-based agriculture) and trees (rubber, tea plantations). Crops grown in industrial monocultures are cultivated for both food products (wheat, canola, corn, palm oil, sugar cane), animal feed and oils (soy, corn) and agrofuels (soy, canola, palm oil, jatropha, sugar cane), while forest plantations (eucalyptus, pine and acacia) are largely used for paper pulp, charcoal, timber and increasingly, biomass (with the possibility that they will be used for agrofuels in future).
Social impacts

The social impacts of large-scale monocultures are often disastrous for communities who continue to grow local foods using sustainable practices. Small-scale farmers often cultivate local species which not only contain important minerals for the soils and for human health, but also have adapted to the local environment over many years.

When small-scale farmers are confronted with industrial large-scale monocultures in their area, they are faced with water and other resources shortages, contamination from pesticide spraying and from GMO crops.

The takeover of land by monocultures also causes rural depopulation, destroying local community life and local economies. Monoculture plantations usually provide only temporary labour, for which workers are often hired from outside the region. Land grabbing and forced evictions of local populations are strongly linked to the expansion of monocultures.

By externalising social and environmental costs, monocultures are economically more profitable and therefore out-compete local producers. Markets become dominated by only a few multinational corporations that control the production, the financing, the trade and/or the input production.

All large-scale monocultures take a toll on the earth, one reason being that the growers view what were once local and natural plants and animals as weeds or pests. This upsets the local ecological balance, causing outbreaks of illnesses and negative feedback cycles.

In the monoculture system, locally and naturally occurring plants and animals are merely seen as pests that have to be destroyed.

Growing so many homogenous plants in one area requires a lot of artificial chemical and mineral input. In nature, plants and animals feed each other the chemicals and minerals required to thrive.

For example, leguminous plants fix nitrogen into the soil, a chemical required for growth, and animals provide fecal matter rich in minerals. Eliminating these natural cycles from a diverse ecosystem requires artificial fertilsers that are used to boost crop yields at a great expense to local biodiversity.

Moreover, monocultures are particularly susceptible to disease, which can spread far more quickly over a large area covered by a single crop than in a biodiverse ecosystem. In order to fight these ‘weeds’, pests and disease outbreaks, cultivators will apply even more herbicides and pesticides to keep the plants growing.

Non-native species

Large-scale industrial monoculture with any plant has serious impacts, but the fact that monocultures are often non-native species adds another layer to the problem. Native species have adapted to the local environment over thousands of years and generally have developed a relationship with other plants and animal species which permit them to survive cooperatively.
Non-native plants thus often require high amounts of water, energy or minerals to survive, which take a devastating toll on the hydro and soil resources as well as other plants and animals living in the area. For example, have you ever tried to grow a cactus in a rainy, cold climate or a fern in a hot, arid climate?

Climate change

While the climate crisis has become a business opportunity for polluters, it is often claimed that the quickest way to fix climate change would be to simply cover the earth with monoculture plantations that would absorb the carbon dioxide, but this could not be farther from the truth.

To begin with, studies show that forests need to stand for many years before they lock-in carbon because most of the carbon is found in the soils.

Plants breathe through their leaves and when the leaves fall to the ground, they return carbon to the soil. The natural carbon cycle between plants, animals, the air, the oceans and the earth maintains a delicate balance.  Monocultures are not forests/ecosystems and do not stand long enough to lock-in carbon in the soil. Moreover, monocultures inhibit soil carbon up-take by frequent tilling and pesticide use.

The no-till or low-till methods often advocated by biotech companies as crops deserving climate subsidies are not a solution either because of all of the problems associated with GM crops.

The Clean Development Mechanism, the biggest offset scheme under the UNFCCC, allows projects that include monoculture plantations under the Aforestation/Reforestation track to sell carbon credits to polluters in the North.

In addition, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) is a controversial scheme being implemented by the UNFCCC and the World Bank which does not differentiate between industrial tree plantations and forests.

These tree plantations and land-related credits are being sold already in voluntary offset markets. Continuing to increase industrial tree and agriculture plantations anywhere, but especially in the South, to ‘offset’ pollution in the North is not a solution to climate change.

Grassroots organisations and movements around the globe have been and still are fighting against the loss of their lands, water, forests and livelihoods as a result of the spread of industrial monoculture models – eucalyptus, pine, oil palm, rubber trees, soy and jatropha – and challenging this model which has profound impacts on food sovereignty, sustainable agriculture, access to land and water, biodiversity, climate stability, local plant knowledge including medicinal plants as well as indigenous and local communities rights.

Large-scale monoculture plantations destroy the natural diversity of life. They are artificial, driven by profit and are environmentally and socially destructive.

Example of tea

Like other tropical crops, tea still raises a number of sustainability issues although, tea is the second most popular drink in the world, after water and also for a number of developing countries it is an important commodity in terms of jobs and export earnings.

Tea production is labour intensive and the industry provides jobs in remote rural areas. Millions of livelihoods around the world depend on tea picking and processing.

However, as with many other agricultural commodities, real primary producer prices have fallen dramatically over the last three decades. Low prices are affecting the sustainability of the tea sector, with working conditions and the livelihoods of plantation workers and small scale farmers in tea producing countries under pressure.

Meanwhile, tea trade and distribution is dominated by a few international companies that benefit from stable retail prices.

Tea supply chain

Attempts have been made in the past by many researchers to look at matters pertaining to trade, production and stakeholders in international tea supply chains and have made many recommendations to various stakeholders for improving conditions, particularly for plantation workers and tea smallholders, the most vulnerable in the tea industry.

Researchers have found that working conditions for pluckers are often poor, with low wages, low job and income security, discrimination along ethnic and gender lines, lack of protective gear and inadequate basic facilities such as housing and sometimes even drinking water and food.

At the same time there is no possibility for tea plantation workers to improve working conditions because trade unions are ineffective and/or are not representing them because most of them due to political pressure.

While tea production by smallholders is growing worldwide, their situation is often problematic because the prices they are paid for fresh tea leaves tend to be below the cost of production, among other factors.

The sector’s environmental footprint is considerable, with reduced biodiversity as the result of habitat conversion, high energy consumption (mainly using logged timber) and a high application of pesticides in some countries.

Environmental issues

The environmental sustainability issues of tea include concerns about land conversion, contamination of soil, surface and water and logging for firewood to dry tea leaves. These are all important drivers for deforestation and loss of biodiversity in the tropical forest areas where tea plantations typically are located.

 The intensive use of chemicals in the mono cultural production of tea also raises concerns.

Additionally, the tea industry is affected by a number of social issues such as poor working conditions, health and safety issues, as well as gender specific problems.

 Tea is grown in monoculture, which reduces biodiversity. In the absence of other plants to maintain the ecological balance, intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers is needed to protect the plants against pest infestation and to enhance productivity. This leaches out the soil.

In conclusion, globally, companies are increasingly coming under attack for the negative environmental and social impacts of their business activities.

Many are systematically addressing this challenge and eco-labels and certification schemes have proliferated as companies ask for third-party validation of their actions.

But now with as many as 700 eco-labels, how does a company know which one to choose? Examples of certification labels include Fairtrade/Max Havelaar, EKO, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ certified, Fair for Life, ProTerra, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification etc.

(The writer can be contacted at
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