I think a lot about food. Not just because I like to eat and I like to cook. I think a lot about the ethical implications of the food choices that I make and I have written about that in the past, particularly on the subject of raising animals for food. But there are other aspects of our current food culture that I think are causing real problems for us, which will only get worse over time.
Much of the world’s food supply is made up of a shrinking list of food varieties. Wheat, rice, corn, sugar, soybean, potatoes, etc. Even these foods, which have multiple genetic varieties, are increasingly grown only in a few varieties, often those engineered and marketed by large agricultural suppliers. These are grown as monocultures – large fields, even plantations that all plant the same crop over square mile after square mile. It provides efficiency for the mechanical nature of current farming. It’s easier to spray from airplanes and harvest by machine.
But it’s absolutely destructive to local flora and fauna. The complete lack of biodiversity means that farmer’s fields are essentially deserts, inhospitable to anything other than one specific crop. Also, since all the plants are making the same demands on the soil, it depletes nutrients in the soil, which then requires inputs – meaning fertilizer, often petroleum based products.
Monoculture also encourages pests. Effective predators of that particular crop have a bonanza – which then leads to increased uses of pesticides. And this combination of chemical pesticides and fertilizers can cause major issues with groundwater and waterway contamination.
Here is Michael Pollan talking about Monoculture
To walk through a grocery store, it may look like we have a lot of variety to choose from, but a lot of that variety is an illusion. Walk down the cereal aisle. Hundreds of brightly colored boxes shout for attention. Some are fun for kids (high in sugar and artificial flavors) others are supposed to be healthy (some whole grains are preserved and vitamins are sprayed on). In reality 99% of the ingredients are from a short list of crops, processed in various ways – wheat, corn, sugar, a bit of rice and oats – the rest is mostly small amounts of additives to manipulate the flavor, color and texture.
Bread, pasta, packaged side dishes – the same is true for all of these. And for meat eaters, many of the animals are fed with these same crops, particularly corn and soy, so ultimately those same crops are being consumed, just one step removed.
There are enormous benefits to food diversity. One is definitely a healthy diet. The common staple foods may be effective at delivering calories/basic energy, but we also require a wide variety of micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and other health-giving substances found in particular plants. Only by eating a variety of different types of foods can we ensure that we are getting the full array of these micronutrients. Many food experts use the natural colors of food as a shorthand for different nutritional profiles. Leafy greens, red tomatoes and peppers, orange root vegetables, blue and purple berries – all these have unique and valuable contributions to your diet. Meanwhile, over-dependence on processed flour, sugar and oils can lead to higher incidence of diabetes, obesity and digestive issues.
Increased diversity also helps food security, since monoculture crops are susceptible to collapse. Here are a few outside sources with more information about the problems associated with monoculture.
An antidote to monoculture is the permaculture movement. It is a complex combination of agriculture strategies that encourages biodiversity, appropriate plants for the microclimate, complementary planting schemes to avoid the need for pesticides and fertilizers, as well as other methods. It can incorporate the concepts of Forest Gardening, Hügelkultur, heirloom plants species, as well as more common ideas such as composting, mulching, and organic farming techniques. All permaculture projects are guided by the natural patterns of the area in question, and try to use the natural features and plantings together to maximize output and minimize environmental damage. It requires more thoughtfulness than monoculture, but if it works properly, it requires far less in terms of outside and unsustainable resources and will produce abundant and varied crops.
We may not all be ready to start our own permaculture garden, but we can all take steps to encourage biodiversity. Having our own garden is a great step, but supporting farmers markets and CSA deliveries (community supported agriculture) are also great steps if these are available to you. Eating locally grown foods in season is a wonderful step to get away from corporate run monoculture. You will notice that the variety of foods that you see at a farmers market or CSA is far more diverse than what you see in a grocery store. Find heirloom tomatoes, vegetables like rutabagas and mustard greens that your grandmother may have known, but that are rarely seen today. And if you do have a garden, take a look at some of the seed catalogs that specialize in heirloom, organic and unusual varieties – you will see vegetables you will never see in the grocery store. Pick out a few and put them in your garden. You will be in for an adventure and learning experience in taste and variety.