When people think about the damage that is being currently done to the environment, their thoughts probably leap to one a few stock images. They might picture lines of static traffic, tailing back for innumerable miles down the highway, a low-lying smog of exhaust fumes hovering ominously above level of the car’s aerials. Alternatively, they might envisage plumes of smoke, billowing in dense black columns from the myriad chimneys of some monolithic manufacturing plant.
However, whilst fossil fuel dependant modes of transportation and industrial waste are big issues which sorely need to be tackled, agriculture provides an equally massive, often overlooked, obstacle in the path of a sustainable future for our species.
One of the main reasons that this should be the case is the widespread practice of ‘monocropping’, where huge tracts of land are used for the intensive cultivation of a single crop. Whilst these methods, which are reminiscent of the techniques of mass production first pioneered by Henry Ford in the field of automobile construction, allow farmers to capitalise on economies of scale to produce larger yields than might otherwise be the case, they carry some extremely grave environmental implications, not least of all for the biodiversity of the planet.
Indeed, according the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation over the last century or so around 75% of the world’s crop varieties have simply disappeared. This is due in large part to the fact that so much land has been cleared to make more room for the staples of humanity’s diet; rice, wheat, barley and maize. These four types of plant now take up nearly 40% of all the cropland on the face on the earth, an area of roughly 588 million hectares in size.
The fact that a lot of this extra space has come at the expense of formerly lush and abundant rainforests which hosted thousands and thousands of different forms of life exaggerates this loss further. On top of this, the way the land is actually tended to deliberately reduces biodiversity.
The lack of variety in plants means that a diverse ecosystem cannot be supported, which in turn means many types of insect are lost, including those which actually help the crop to grow by preying on harmful pests. As a result these pests have to be dealt with in other ways, namely by covering the land in vast quantities of pesticide. As well as being bad for the bugs they are intended they can also have an adverse effect on other creatures they come into contact with, including, in some cases, human beings. New ways of thinking about food production are going to need to be advanced it we are to avoid exacerbating the situation anymore.
Steve Waller is an environmental blogger who, as well as analysing the effects of monocropping on the environment, covers a range of other issues on his site GreenSteve.com