In praise of crop monocultures

A blog by William Foster, a BEFTA Researcher and member of the University of Cambridge’s Insect Ecology Group (Department of Zoology).

Theresa May probably did more to promote a positive image for crop monocultures than any previous British Prime Minister when she revealed, in a TV interview in 2017, that the naughtiest thing she did as a child was to “run through fields of wheat with a friend”. She was much mocked at the time for the timidity of this disclosure. But I think that she should have been applauded for her boldness in showing the nation’s housebound urban youth how to re-establish contact with nature. Fling aside those laptops! Escape to the countryside, feel the nurturing soil under your feet, the wind in your hair, and the burgeoning grains brushing urgently against your thighs.

It is worth noting that her trailblazing fling took place in a farmed monoculture, rather than in, say, a flower-rich hay meadow or a Caledonian pine forest. Admittedly, such ecosystems might be hard to access for most British children, but she was making the point that you do not have to go to extreme lengths to reforge your bond with the earth: just find your local crop – oats, barley, wheat, oil-seed rape, but perhaps not rhubarb – and trash it.

Monocultures became part of our world with the invention of farming, in the Levant and a few other areas, at around the same time, about 10,000 years ago. Crops yielded more when freed from competition with other species, now known as weeds. The food surpluses that became available meant that agriculture could eventually be left to a farming caste, paving the way for the evolution of elites – priests, doctors, entomologists etc – and world domination. Humans were of course not the first species to invent agriculture: that honour belongs to the fungus-growing termites and leaf-cutter ants, who made this transition tens of millions of years ago and who, as a result, dominate the tropical ecosystems in which they live. But for humans, farming is awesomely recent: for all but the last 5% of the 200,000-year history of modern humans, we existed as hunter-gatherers.

Unlike us, the farming insect societies have had tens of millions of years to hone their skills in the husbanding of their fungus monocultures – producing perfect growing media, developing ideal pesticides, antibiotics, and symbiotic bacteria, and inventing active recycling and waste management. We are still adjusting to the agricultural way of life. Human history is littered with failed experiments in societies built on agriculture. After agriculture, our brains became smaller, we became shorter, and so too did our lives: in 1900 the average human life-span was 30 years compared with 33 years for our late-Pleistocene hunter-gatherer ancestors. It is only in the last hundred years or so that things have begun to look up a bit.

It is therefore perhaps not surprising that we view the crop monocultures of modern agriculture as a mixed blessing. But it would be, at the very least, discourteous to disown a system that gave us Shakespeare and Darwin, and utter madness to abandon the only method that currently works for feeding the world.

So how do we best emulate leaf-cutter ants and grow monocultures that will feed us and with which we can live in harmony? This is the most urgent question of our time, but I will continue to over-simplify things, or you will all die of boredom, if you are still there. The land-sparing argument is, in my view, won. We must have high-yielding monocultures covering large areas, and we must spare as much land as we can for reserves of natural vegetation. The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this is best approach for conserving biodiversity and other important ecosystem services.

I am less certain that land-sparing of crop landscapes will deliver one particular outcome, that is the provision of beauty. This might seem an exceptionally frivolous, even elitist, quality to be striving for, but I have no doubt that it is important to us all. Important, but almost impossible to define. Dame Fiona Reynolds in The Fight for Beauty, her account of landscape conservation over the last 200 years or so in the UK, writes of aesthetic and spiritual experiences, of the nourishment of our souls, but completely fails to provide us with a crisp definition of what it is we are supposed to be fighting for. This is probably a good sign. Beauty will always depend on the unique responses of each of us: I am not entirely sure I would wish to have this handed down to me from a higher authority.

From the painstaking work of W. G. Hoskins, Oliver Rackham and others, it is clear that almost no landscape in England is natural: the hand of man is everywhere. This is probably true of the landscapes of many countries with a long history of agriculture. For most of us, this is what we are used to and this is what we like – what nourishes our souls, and all that. I am not sure that a combination of large areas of high-yielding crops and vast wildernesses will provide this nourishment. But we need to find out, to gather evidence by asking people what they think.

To return to Mrs May. One reason that she enjoyed her romp in the wheat-field quite so much was because she was disordering a highly managed landscape: it would not have been nearly so much fun to trample about in an already messy stand of rose-bay willowherb on a railway embankment. The importance of getting children to get in touch with nature is widely recognized and has spawned numerous initiatives – such as the National Trust’s 50 things to do before you are 11¾. My point in mentioning Mrs May at all is not to encourage armies of children to trash their local farmland. It is merely to suggest that you do not have to make a special trip to a National Nature Reserve or even a National Trust property to experience the natural world. A nearby wheat-field will do: kick off those Nikes, sit back, enjoy your vegan wrap and bottled water, and breathe in the odour of the ripening grains.

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