Author: Andrew Flachs | Published: February 14, 2017
Most commercial agriculture around the world comes in the form of monocultures, where whole fields are devoted to a single plant. Monocultures are stark landscapes, built around the logic of factories rather than the logic of farmers or forests.
It doesn’t need to be that way. The monoculture way of thinking that underlies our contemporary food and agriculture systems is a fairly recent invention. Agricultural biodiversity has long been a part of the farmer’s toolkit, benefiting the natural landscape and agrarian life.
Nowhere is this clearer than with cotton. Since 2012, I’ve researched the lives of farmers in India choosing between non-organic cotton cash crops and organic cotton programs, asking how people and their environments are affected by this agricultural decision. By learning how to work together, farmers and organic development groups can develop locally appropriate and mutually beneficial initiatives that reduce social and environmental vulnerability in these villages.
When people living in North America or Europe imagine a cotton farm, they might picture a forest of white fluffy plants. That’s a perfect example of a monoculture. Planting only one kind of crop makes it simpler to sow seeds, harvest yields, fertilize crops, clear weeds and treat for pests, especially when the farmer in question is using chemicals and machines to help them in that work. All the tools are specialized to the task at hand, and all the work happens in one place, just like a factory that brings workers together and then divides up the labor under one roof.
Yet this kind of farming can be hard to keep up. If a farmer plants the same crop in the same field year after year, the plants use up the same nutrients from the soil and attract the same pests each year. Therefore, farmers planting monocultures have to work even harder to kill those pests and replenish the nutrients lost in the soil, locking them into a vicious cycle of chemicals, pests and farm expenses.
Biodiversity is a problem for modern agriculture. Monocultures reduce the biodiversity of the land by transforming fields into areas where only one plant matters. By this way of thinking, plants and animals that creep onto the farm are interlopers who threaten productivity.
Most Indian cotton farmers are planting genetically modified (GM) cotton, and have been steadily increasing their use of herbicides to control weeds in their fields. They are also placing their cotton plants closer and closer together. Both of these moves make their fields less biodiverse because they eliminate the possibility of planting fruits and vegetables in field gaps that spread out their agricultural risk.
Because of international laws, farmers cannot certify GM crops as organic and sell them with organic premiums, even if they are grown without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Despite these downsides, Indian cotton agriculture is dominated by GM Bt cotton, a variety that has been modified to produce one or more insecticidal toxins as it grows. GM cotton fields also lack biodiversity, not because the plants are genetically modified, but because they are planted as monocultures.