One of the most pressing environmental dilemmas facing our current food system is the use of monocultures. A monoculture, as defined by Harvard University’s School of Public Health is, “The agricultural practice of producing or growing genetically similar, or essentially identical plants, over a large areas (stands), year after year…” There are serious implications of growing one singular type of crop over an expansive area.
Loss of genetic diversity amongst crops is one serious concern. If plants are bred to retain specific characteristics, while other characteristics are bred out, these plants may be cumulatively impacted by blight, pest, or climate change. Though many monocultures have been bred or genetically altered to produce a higher yield, a few plants falling subject to a strain of bacteria may jeopardize the health of the entire crop. On the other hand, genetically engineered monocultures may better withstand climate change or pest interference, allowing for greater production (Harvard University, n.d.).
Soil health may also be compromised by monocultures. Different plants have different nutritional needs, therefore one plant may draw nutrients from the soil that another plant does not and vice versa. As one mineral is continually drawn from the soil by the replanting of the same monoculture year after year, the soil is depleted of this resource (USDA, 1996). Though remedied by the planting of cover crops, there is a tendency to focus on food production quantities over soil health and vitality. This cycle is unsustainable and one of the reasons monocropping contributes to environmental degradation.
In the United States, corn is one of the best known monocultures, grown extensively throughout the midwest. In an experiment conducted in the upper garden on Ithaca College’s campus, one bed was allocated as the “monocrop bed”, while its neighbor housed the 3 Sisters. The 3 Sisters, corn, beans, and squash, were the main crops of many North American Native Americans. Grown together, each crop serves a purpose for the others.
The corn is planted first and allowed to grow about 4-6 inches before the beans are planted. As the beans begin to grow, they climb the previously planted corn stalks. Beans, a legume, contain nitrogen fixing bacteria which incorporate nitrogen into the soil, benefitting the g
rowth of the corn and squash. The squash grows along the bottom of the bed without interfering with the growth of the beans or squash, which fruit far from the ground. Together, the 3 Sisters are a polyculture. Polycultures, or the intentional growing of plants that assist each other in some capacity during growth, are not only more environmentally friendly, but also allow for a greater variety of produce to be grown in a small plot of land.
Data from this experiment is on its way!
-IC Campus Gardens