May 22, 2023

Monoculture, “Green Deserts” and 5 ways to make an impact

It’s estimated that 38% of the global land surface is currently used for agriculture—around five billion hectares. With the global population doubling since the 1960s, the increased demand for resources has cleared vast areas of forest, grassland, wetland and other crucial ecosystems to make way for crop farming on a massive scale. 

Agricultural land is used to grow and harvest the vital food staples needed to feed our continuously growing population. We plant single kinds of trees over and over for wood. These practices have resulted in massive monocultures—areas consisting of just one or two plant varieties—that not only negatively impacts local biodiversity but the future of agriculture itself. 

What is a monoculture?

A monoculture is an area that grows just one or two crops or plants. Monocultures can be found all over the world and are predominantly the result of agriculture’s shift towards single high-yielding crops that thrive under certain conditions. For farmers, the benefits of this practice have been numerous; they are better able to develop and use more specialized machinery, increase efficiency in planting and harvesting, and it offers more predictability. 

A tractor plowing corn

Monoculture is a response to meeting the booming demand for more food and other resources such as wood—but now the real impact of all those corn fields and sugar cane plantations is becoming more and more apparent…

Examples of monoculture

The planet has an estimated 30,000 edible plant species, and yet nearly half of the world’s caloric intake comes from just three crops—wheat, rice and maize (corn). These three crops make up global food staples such as bread, cereals, rice, oats, etc, but the majority is used to feed livestock. In fact, an estimated 80% of global agricultural land is used purely to feed animals. 

Cows eating grain

Monoculture isn’t just limited to crops and plants. It also includes other kinds of large scale farming such as:

  • Fish farming where only one species of fish is raised and farmed in a specific area. Examples of this are sturgeon for caviar or salmon.
  • The cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that are designed to reproduce uniform traits across an entire crop, such as resistance to pests or herbicides.
  • Industrial-scale livestock farming where only one breed or type of animal is raised for meat, dairy, or egg production. 
  • Planting single types of tree species such as pine or eucalyptus for commercial forestry or paper production, also known as “green deserts.”

Green deserts

So-called “green deserts'' are created when an area of land is planted with a single, usually non-native tree species. These monoculture forests are unable to support or (at least) fully replicate the rich ecosystems of natural forests, which is a huge problem because forest ecosystems help regulate the water cycle, are responsible for producing a significant amount of the oxygen we breathe, and maintain soil health. 

Forests thrive on a diversity of animal and plant species. They provide habitat and food for an enormous number of wildlife, including many endangered and threatened species. Forests also support a complex network of interactions among linked species; including pollinators, fungi, seed dispersers, and decomposers. 

Two mushrooms growing in the ground

In the past humans would just chop down trees and use the wood from naturally growing forests, but this caused huge amounts of devastation over the centuries with demand for wood increasing exponentially. The solution was to plant more trees in their place. It might be a no-brainer to think that simply planting more trees is a way of regenerating entire forest ecosystems, but unfortunately it’s doing more harm than good. 

Areas like the Harz forest region in Germany used to be home to an abundance of deciduous trees like beech, ash trees, birch, maple and many others, as well as spruce trees in the higher regions. Over the centuries people in the area used the naturally growing wood for mining, which led to large areas being cut down and cleared. In an effort to produce more wood quickly, only the fast growing spruce trees were planted, creating a green desert in the area. After World War II, even more wood was needed to rebuild the country and even more spruce trees were planted.

As a result of this spruce monoculture, the Harz forest region has been less able to withstand the effects of climate change—including a massive heatwave and subsequent drought that has decimated huge numbers of these trees.

Dead trees that have been cut down

Why are monocultures a problem, and not a solution?

Half the world’s habitable land is now used for agriculture, and it’s had a massive impact on global biodiversity. Non-native plant species and crops can outcompete and displace native species, which means that natural ecosystems struggle to survive and thrive when large numbers of one or two crops are introduced into an area.

One of the biggest issues with monoculture practices is that the continuous harvesting of the same crops and trees leads to soil erosion and degradation over time. By planting the same species of crop over and over, the soil becomes less able to cycle water and nutrients. This leads to decreased soil fertility and makes it harder for plants to grow. 

Another problem with monocultures is the increased risk of pests and the quick spread of disease. Diversity in an ecosystem helps control these outbreaks in nature, but single species regions can amplify the spread of damaging insects and disease to sometimes devastating effects. According to William Wetzel, a doctoral student in Population Biology at UC Davis, “the problem with monocultures is that if an insect likes the crop, that insect has a large food supply to draw from all in one place.”

 “Conversely, a field containing a small variety of plants does not offer a large block of food for the insect, so it will not get the nutrients it needs to survive and thrive. A monoculture is like a buffet for plant-eating insects where every dish is delicious.”

Monocultures also have a big impact on climate change. Industrialized agriculture in general is a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and land use. Monocultures encourage the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides which can kill native insects and animals—and get into our food chain. They also impact the ability for ecosystems to adapt to a changing climate. Low species diversity is more vulnerable to climate-related stressors such as drought or disease, which is bad news for us!

What can we do to help?

But there is hope! There are many ways you (yes just you!) can help mitigate the damage caused by monocultures and help reverse their effect on global biodiversity—and it’s as simple as changing your daily habits and being more conscious about where and how we spend our money. 

1. Support sustainable agriculture

There are plenty of ways to support sustainable agriculture. You can reduce your impact on the environment by sourcing your produce as locally as possible—and local farms or farmers’ markets are a great way to do this. By supporting smaller scale, organic and local farms—or better yet, growing your own vegetables, fruits and herbs—you are helping to support sustainable farming practices such as crop rotation, cover cropping, and intercropping which all help promote soil health and biodiversity.

2. Reduce consuming products that contribute to monocultures and deforestation

Educating yourself on monoculture plantations and which ingredients they produce can help you make more conscious choices when you next head to the grocery story. Products like palm oil, which can be found in chocolate, ice cream, cookies, instant noodles, some breads and even lipstick, can be easily avoided by checking the label. Palm oil production is a huge contributor to deforestation in some of the world's most biodiverse forests. 

Monoculture: palm trees planted in a row

Another big one is meat—eating less meat can help reduce your personal carbon footprint and reduce the huge amount of space needed to raise livestock, directly impacting agricultural monocultures.

3. Support agroforestry

Reforesting, rewilding and agroforestry are all great ways to help encourage and increase biodiversity in monocultures. Replanting trees and plants—especially a variety of native species—helps revitalize ecosystems and encourages Mother Nature to do what Mother Nature does best! Agroforestry is a great way to do this, and involves integrating native trees into agricultural landscapes to increase biodiversity, provide shade, and enrich soil. A great example are food forests in Senegal, which are part of Africa's Great Green Wall initiative to rewild north Africa.

A fanther and child planting a tree in the dirt

4. Advocate for change

Getting involved in direct (or indirect) action to put pressure on those in power has and will continue to improve damaging industrialized farming practices. There are a lot of ways you can support local and international movements or protests that are trying to make a difference. Join protests like Fridays for Future or sign petitions to spark debate. Even better, you can check out local rewilding or tree planting projects, create your own wild garden or home for nature, or even organize clean-ups in local parks and natural spots. Small changes to reduce our individual impact on the environment go a long way. 

5. Support Planet Wild 

One of the best ways you can help combat monocultures and other manmade problems is by supporting Planet Wild and becoming one of our valued community members! We’re currently building a global community of nature lovers and joining us is one of the best ways you can directly support organizations making visible change!

Planet Wild is committed to rewilding the planet through monthly missions that work directly with grassroots organizations dedicated to fighting the biodiversity crisis. When you become a Planet Wild member, your contribution will directly fund innovative and exciting projects all over the world, so you can make a difference from home. Learn more about what we do here.

A bison wearing sunglasses

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