There has been considerable debate regarding the advantages and disadvantages of monoculture agriculture. This type of plant production is a system in which a single plant species, typically one producing grain (such as corn, wheat, or rice), forage (such as alfalfa or clover), or fiber (such as cotton), is grown in the same field on a repetitive basis, to the exclusion of all other species. In its most extreme version, a single variety of a plant species is grown, and all plants are virtually identical to one another.
Monoculture can be contrasted with other agricultural production practices, such as multiple cropping (in which sequential monoculture crops are grown in the same year) or intercropping (in which two or more different crops are grown at the same time and place). Monoculture can also apply to perennial produce systems, such as fruiting trees, citrus crops, tea, coffee, and rubber trees.
Monocultures are unnatural ecological occurrences. They are maintained through the use of resources such as labor, energy, and capital (fertilizers, chemicals, and so on). Left to itself, a monoculture crop will quickly revert to being a mixed plant community. However, monoculture agriculture has several advantages that caused its widespread adoption from the moment agriculture began.
Monocultures allow agriculturalists to focus their energy on producing a single crop best adapted to a particular environment or to a particular market. For example, a premium is paid for white corn, used in making snack foods.
Consequently, monoculture agriculture in the United States has developed in concert with the resources required to support it—markets, credit, chemicals, seed, and machinery—and with the social conditions that have caused the United States to change from a rural to a largely urban and suburban population.
The disadvantages of monoculture are numerous. There are apparent limits to the increase in crop yields brought about by newhybrid seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. Yield increases in monoculture agriculture have diminished since the 1980’s.
There is an economy of scale at which farm size becomes too small to permit effective mechanization or for which insufficient markets exist for reliance on a single crop. Focus on production of a single crop may lead to unbalanced diets and nutritional deficiencies in agricultural communities where no external supplies of produce are available.
The famine was instigated by natural climatic conditions that allowed the plant pathogen Phytophthora infestans (potato late blight) to destroy successive potato crops in a population too impoverished to afford other food staples that were available.