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By Mark Lundegren
I have a fairly simple but far-reaching proposal for you – to stop eating monocrop foods, entirely and for good.
Today, this is plainly possible, if with one caveat. And although, or rather because, the move is countercultural and sweeping on many fronts, it arguably is the single most important step we can take to improve the ecological and personal health of the way we eat, now and forever.
Let me briefly explain the what, why, and how of moving to a monocrop-free diet, so you can consider if the change is right in principle, and right for you.
As you likely know, monocrop agriculture is one of the core features and indeed prides of human civilization to date, and was at the foundation of our Agrarian Revolution roughly 10,000 years ago. This development of course eventually made possible advanced civilization, science, and now modern life, even as it ironically and continually threatens each of these things.
In monocrop agriculture, and as the name indicates, single plant species – such as the staple crops wheat, corn, or soy – are grown monolithically and typically at scale. This can be done repeatedly with a single crop species, or via a series of revolving and chemically complementary crops. In monoculture farming, or monocropping, the agricultural plants used are normally fast-growing and repeatedly-planted annuals, or perennials grown as annuals.
Overall, the benefits of the approach are increased planting and harvesting efficiency, and greater edible plant density under cultivation. Owing to this, early and now modern monocrop farming tremendously increased agricultural yields, is the mainstay of the way people have eaten for centuries, and is the basis of most of the foods you will encounter in your local supermarket. This includes most plant foods, nearly all processed foods, and even many animal products, since most are now substantially raised on monocrop diets.
However, monocrop agriculture is not all benefits or upside, and free of costs or downside. As you may understand or just noticed, it is a practice unlike and even antithetical to natural plant ecology and larger natural ecosystems, and thus natural human food systems too. In wild nature, diverse mixtures of plants, animals, and microorganisms normally grow and evolve together in polyculture, and usually in persistent and synergistic guilds or interdependent systems, importantly with soils sheltered and left undisturbed. This ecological diversity of course is naturally selected and thus changes over time, but at any point normally aids the health or resilience of each participating species, as well as the soil fertility (or water fertility in marine ecology) upon which all species naturally depend, including our own.
Lacking these essential qualities of natural ecosystems, traditional and modern monocrop food systems have a number of unfortunate but foreseeable drawbacks. Foremost, they tend to assault and quickly diminish soil health, and in turn reduce natural soil fertility. This necessitates costly soil replenishment from either inorganic or organic sources, broadly impairs the nutritional quality of foods, and releases soil-sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Related to this, monocrop systems also greatly increase soil vulnerability to wind and water erosion, and also ultraviolet radiation, in all cases promoting soil loss and desertification. In fact, many once fertile areas in the pre-modern world are now deserts, owing to the effects of earlier monocrop and other ecologically damaging forms of human agriculture. And today, vast areas of the world, and the societies they feed, are now threatened by unnatural or impermanent agriculture, and these practices are likely to prove unsustainable without a basic change in our approach.
Importantly, while reduced soil health and its ensuing effects are the most important adverse consequence of monocrop agriculture, and therefore monocrop eating, they are not the only ones. Monocrop plants are naturally more exposed and susceptible to pests, requiring the use of pesticides and other mitigation strategies, and today incentivizing the use of more pest-resistant, but ecologically and health uncertain, genetically modified organisms (GMOs). And beyond increasing pest populations and introducing pesticides and their greenhouse gasses into the general environment, monocrop agriculture is also harmful to natural ecological systems on other notable fronts. These effects include displacing natural plants and animals, introducing new species to local areas, imbalancing natural ecosystems, increasing water runoff and reducing groundwater recharging, and depleting or corrupting remaining water resources.
Lastly, and closer to home, monocrop farming not only can result in poorer nutritional quality in the foods we raise and eat, via soil impairment and reduced plant vitality, it can and in fact already has unhealthfully shifted our diets in favor of foods more readily grown in monocrop systems. This includes our elevated use of historically novel or unnatural, carbohydrate-rich, metabolically and hormonally-distorting, inflammatory, and antinutrient-abundant staple crops, along with increased reliance on processed and animal foods derived from these crops.
Of course, not all human food production is based on monocrop agriculture. In a number of crucial and instructive areas, our food supply is polycultural, guild-based and synergistic, natural or naturally-modeled, naturally fertile and productive, soil and water protecting, pesticide-free, carbon-sequestering, and potentially fully sustainable in perpetuity. Key examples of these natural human food systems include: 1) the world’s wild and wild-farmed fisheries, 2) human grassland and pastoral agriculture in its many forms, 3) perennial silviculture or tree-based agriculture, especially in combination with complementary plant and animal guilds, and 4) other polyculture food systems, notably including food forests and sea plant harvesting. Crucially, these and other non-monocrop food systems offer a natural and resilient model for human agriculture and economics, today and for the future, and a path forward to superior human health and sustainability.
As I said at the start of my proposal, the move to monocrop-free eating (MFE) and monocrop-free agriculture (MFA) is not only desirable today, it is entirely possible and even quite easy. To achieve this goal, we need only migrate our diet to foods from the polycultural and sustainable food systems listed above, immediately producing a diet that is personally healthier and far sounder ecologically than is the case with typical modern diets, again with one qualifier or caveat.
The caveat is that three important and related food types are missing from the above lists. These are leafy greens, vegetable fruits, and other green vegetables – all non-staple or secondary foods that are natural and health-essential sources of dietary fiber and micronutrients for us. While these foods can be replaced with new and existing polycultural alternatives, today this requires considerable effort on the part of both consumers and farmers – though, as such, it is clearly a critical new opportunity for food system innovation that should be strongly encouraged and pursued.
In the short-term, and as we await widespread alternatives, continued use of these three monocrop plant types seems unavoidable for most of us. However, since these are secondary or supporting foods in our diets, the use of annual vegetable crops is readily done on a fully sustainable basis, by recycling food wastes and replenishing impinged soils with rich composts from a primarily polycultural, and thus principally natural, modern diet.
I would encourage you to consider these important, upending, renaturalizing, perhaps strange, and also likely civilization-saving ideas – and welcome your comments and questions.
Health & best wishes,
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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