Eating organic isn’t just for hipsters
News has swirled in recent years that the banana industry is in crisis — a virus called Tropical Race 4 is, like its name suggests, rapidly spreading around the globe crippling the world’s banana plantations. How can a single viral strain be capable of wiping out all of the world’s bananas? The scary answer lies in our modern agricultural practices which focus on profit over sustainability. Ninety-nine percent of the bananas eaten in the developed world are of just one varietal called Cavendish, meaning it only takes one deadly illness to wipe out the whole lot.
What is monoculture?
Monoculture is the establishment of a single plant varietal on a, typically large, swathe of farmland. These varietals are grown season after season, without any crop rotation. Crop rotation, which was the standard method of farming for millennia along with the use of animal waste as fertilizer, ensured that countervailing nutrients passed into and out of the soil and interrupted the life cycles of harmful insects that were typically attracted to a certain plant. These natural processes have been replaced with the use of huge quantities of synthetic fertilizers for nutrients and pesticides to repel insects.
Proponents of monoculture claim it allows for greater yields of crops by isolating and selecting for certain qualities, like insect-repulsion, heartiness, beauty and increased flowering, through breeding. As our global population continues to grow, the production of sufficient quantities of food will be crucial to alleviating hunger and poverty. The drawbacks, however, could be even more damaging to our long-term ecology than the risk of not having enough food. (I will note also that humans globally waste 1/3 of the food we produce.)
The problems resulting from the widespread use of agricultural monocultures are numerous. I’ll break down the basics:
Pesticides: Genetically homogenous plants grown in monocultures do not have the natural defense system to fight off pests, so increasing quantities of pesticides are employed by farmers. Pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables has been shown to cause neurological problems in children and adults. Runoff can enter bodies of water and groundwater, impacting the quality of our drinking water and the health of the fish and birds that rely on those sources. Populations of beneficial microorganisms in soil also dwindle due to pesticides, as well as those of many non-target animals, such as bees, bats, spiders, fish and river dolphins.
Water: Agriculture accounts for 92% of the world’s water usage. Moreover, agriculture wastes 60% of the water it uses through leaky infrastructure, poor application techniques, and the cultivation of especially “thirsty” crops. Agricultural water use has certainly contributed to the current extreme drought California is facing.
Fertilizer: Excess fertilizer escapes fields as runoff into water sources and as gas into the atmosphere. In the water, these can cause eutrophication, which depletes oxygen from the water and kills the plants and fish living in it. It can also escape into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas that depletes the ozone layer. Furthermore, production of the primary elements in fertilizer — nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) — are expensive or limited. Nitrogen can be collected from the air, but only through a carbon-intensive production process. Phosphorous and potassium, meanwhile, only exist in limited quantities on Earth and they’re running out. Without them, food production is impossible.
Declining nutrient content: Crops of the past offered far more nutrients than crops do today, per calorie consumed. Modern agricultural methods, like close planting and the focus on yields, result in plants being unable to develop strong root systems and, in turn, being unable to absorb as many nutrients. Modern plants have between 10–25% fewer nutrients today than in the past. Not only that, but by investing in monoculture, we also eliminate variety in our diets, leading to illness and obesity.
Superweeds & superinsects: Modern agriculture attempts to subvert nature by biologically altering our plants to resist weeds and bugs, but nature is fighting back. Weeds and insects have begun to evolve to counteract the effects of pesticides and herbicides, creating a vicious cycle in which we are developing ever-more-toxic chemicals to ward off our agricultural foes.
This brings me back to the banana story. The irony is that this is not the first instance of the world’s bananas falling prey to a deadly virus. Beginning in 1903, the predecessor of the Cavendish, the Gros Michel, a sweeter, creamier banana, was wiped out by a cousin of the Tropical Race 4, the Race 1 virus. The Cavendish was one varietal (among many) that was resistant to the virus and, thus, chosen to replace it on plantations across the globe. Clearly the banana masterminds were not thinking long term and banana plantation owners are now having trouble finding a species that can replace the Cavendish. The reason? Tropical Race 4 came from “one of the ancient cradles of banana civilization,” Malaysia. There, it had the time to evolve into a super-virus, capable of tackling even the well-adapted native Malaysian bananas. Foreign bananas didn’t stand a chance. The current plight of the bananas is just one example of the dangers of monoculture — hopefully we’ll learn our lesson and shift back towards more sustainable forms of agriculture. In the meantime, it’s a good reason to buy local and organic.