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  • Unconventional Ag

Single-crop Farming: Global Practices and Ecological Threats

By Tatyana Golembovskaia,

Industrial agriculture implies the cultivation of a small number of varieties in large volumes. However, this approach, as opposed to growing many different types of crops in small areas, threatens both global food security and the environment primarily due to the intensive use of chemicals. And even with the use of modern technology for agriculture, it’s almost impossible to mitigate the impact of such farming practices.

The single-crop farming model simply runs contrary to sustainability principles. Pests, pollution, and plant diseases are just a few of the long-term effects that increase the vulnerability of agricultural systems and put food supplies at serious risk.

The Basics of Single-crop Farming

Monoculture is an agricultural method that involves repeated planting of one type of crop on the same piece of land. Thanks to such an approach, farmers can produce large yields with minimal use of resources. In monoculture, the same crop is grown on the same land from year to year. The main goal behind it is to increase production (yields) and reduce the labor force required.

Monoculture Farming Examples

Here are some famous cases of monoculture farming and its impact.

Potato Monocropping in Ireland

Ireland holds one of the most significant cases of monoculture cultivation. In the 40s of the 19th century, Irish farmers were growing one variety of potato mono-culturally to satisfy the citizens’ food demand. Unfortunately, it was successful only until a potato blight arrived in the country from the Americas. The cultivated potato had no resistance to the disease, which caused the loss of nearly all its harvest in Ireland.

Trees Monoculturing

Monoculture in forestry implies planting unique species of trees to receive higher yields and more efficient harvesting. Such monoculture forest stands are planted and harvested as a unit and entail zero diversity in tree sizes. This means such areas have limited openings, which makes them vulnerable to wildfires. In addition, it significantly increases the risk of diseases and insect outbreaks.

Large-scale Corn Production

Such a common crop as corn allows agricultural producers to earn a good profit. If they are lucky with the rains, it's even better. That is why the area under crop cultivation grows intensively every year inevitably resulting in soil depletion and environmental pollution.

Key Disadvantages of Monoculture

Here are the main cons of single-crop farming.

Biodiversity Decrease

The most significant disadvantage of monoculture is that it singles out adaptation. Wild ecosystems are diverse, and populations of wild plants and animals are also diverse. The ecosystem contains many different species, each with unique adaptations to the environment, as well as strengths and weaknesses in response to changing conditions.

Likewise, the natural population of a plant or animal species has genetic variability, and each individual plant or animal has slightly different characteristics. Moreover, each population and ecosystem as a whole is constantly changing, adapting to changing environmental conditions and conditions imposed by other populations and species in the system. Monoculture equalizes this variability, destroying diversity and replacing it, at best with one species, and at worst with one variety. For example, 75 percent of the world’s crop varieties have been lost over the last century due to monoculture farming.

Pests Outbreaks

The ecological landscape of a monoculture is that there is a huge number of genetically identical plants amid wild pests, including fungi, bacteria, insects, and many other organisms. Each of these pests has a population with its own biodiversity, and their populations are constantly changing and adapting to the ability to feed on plants or reap the benefits of the presence of crops. However, monocultures do not change and cannot adapt because they do not have genetic variation and cannot reproduce naturally.

The only way to control pests in this system is to spend more and more energy and resources on chemical control by spraying pesticides, fungicides, or bactericides on crops, or by genetically engineering crops that could produce these chemicals themselves. But without natural adaptation, pests will eventually evolve to counter any of these defense mechanisms. The monoculture system is inherently doomed because it works against the natural ways that ecosystems follow.

Soil Degradation and Erosion

Plants need many resources to grow. However, if the crop is planted in the same field for a long period, it limits its chance to use other nutrients in the soil. Due to the cultivation of the same plant, again and again, monoculture reduces the composition of nitrogen in the soil. Once the land is used for one crop, soil fertility, organic content, and structure suffer, making it vulnerable to degradation and erosion by wind and water.

Groundwater Pollution

Due to declining soil fertility, farmers have no other choice than to rely heavily on chemicals to promote plant growth and ensure sufficient production volumes. Monoculture harms the environment when chemicals and pesticides enter the groundwater and cause pollution.

Besides, single-crop farming requires vast amounts of irrigation, as soil moisture retention is limited. Achieving this huge amount of extra water means draining it from rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, exhausting natural water resources, and aquatic ecosystems while polluting them simultaneously.

Fossil Fuel Energy Use

Monoculture implies huge production volumes at once. When selling all of this produce, a substantial amount of fossil fuel energy is required for its sorting, packaging, and transportation. This plays one of the key roles in environmental pollution and climate change primarily due to greenhouse gases emissions.

The Danger of Single-crop Farming and Ecological Threats

Since monoculture requires ever-increasing chemical use; its negative impact on the environment is also constantly increasing exponentially. While people often choose to use safer chemicals, if they exist, and use them at the lowest possible concentration, any safe chemical will surely stop working eventually. Many chemicals used in commercial agriculture are toxic or have other adverse effects on humans. But even chemicals that are safe for consumption or human exposure can still have negative impacts on the environment, polluting the air, water, and land.

All in all, monoculture is a system that works against the natural ecological process. An alternative to it would be permaculture, which implies smart crop rotation to ensure sustainable food production. Wider implementation of permaculture could help prevent the harmful impact monoculture is having on the environment.


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