Monoculture: Why GMOs Aren’t a Cause
Do GMO crops “foster monoculture?” GMO Answers independent expert, Steve Savage, addresses this common criticism of modern agriculture.
- “Monoculture” isn’t the right term to use to describe the relevant issues – it’s really about a limited crop rotation
- History and economics are the drivers behind this phenomenon, not crop biotechnology
- The solutions – to the extent that they are needed – are not what most critics seem to imagine
Steve then delves into what is the phenomenon of “monoculture”.
“The Corn Belt of the Midwestern US, is a multi-million acre farming region almost entirely dominated by just two crops – corn and soybeans. This phenomenon is often termed ‘monoculture,’ but monoculture is merely the practical approach of growing a single crop in a given field. The opposite of monoculture is ‘polyculture’ and it is entirely impractical for even minimally mechanized farming.”
The Corn Belt is more accurately described as an example of a “limited crop rotation.”
“Corn and soybeans happen to be crops which involve widespread use of biotech crop options, but there are many other farming areas with a narrow crop rotation where ‘GMO’ options have never been available. There are areas in Northern Europe where ‘continuous wheat’ is the norm and many premium wine regions where essentially only grapes are grown. If farmers somewhere are not using a diverse crop rotation – there is a rational explanation involving history, economics, and risk management.”
Let’s start by looking at Iowa, which sits in the very heart of the “Corn Belt.” As you can see from the graph to the left, corn has been the dominant Iowa crop for a very long time, because Iowa is just about the ideal place to grow that crop. Most farmland in that part of the Midwest is “rain-fed” rather than irrigated. The amount of rain that typically falls in Iowa is sufficient to produce a good corn crop without limiting yield by the number of cloudy days.
Now, Illinois and Indiana have also been mostly two crop states ever since soybeans filled in for declining oat demand in the 50s and 60s. There has always been a small, but
significant wheat sector in both of these states, part of a “double cropping” system in which corn is followed by winter wheat and then soy, producing three cash crop harvests in two years. Indiana now has a small alfalfa segment – a case of crop diversification “fostered by a GMO crop.”
Minnesota had a more diverse agriculture than its neighbors to the south, but like them, it replaced oats with soybeans long before the biotech era. The expansion of soybeans has continued in the biotech era, partially because of the attractiveness of Roundup Ready Soy, but also because cultivars better adapted to colder springs have also been introduced through conventional breeding. Barley, rye and flax have declined in the biotech era as has wheat to some degree.
The recent decline of wheat is even more pronounced in North Dakota as it went from approximately 50% of all plantings to about 30%. As in Minnesota, the rapid increase in soybeans came from a combination of more cold tolerant lines and the herbicide tolerance trait. Corn plant-ings have also increased in the biotech era. For both crops the expansion is mostly in the wetter Red River Valley portion of the state. The expansion of corn and soy at the expense of cereals like wheat, barley and rye may seem like a case where biotech is reducing rotational diversity, but the story is a bit more complex.
How Could The Corn Belt Rotation Be Diversified?
“First of all, the corn/soy rotation in the corn belt is a highly successful production system. It also includes enough genetic diversity within those species to continue to perform. That said, some additional diversity would be a good thing. Scab-resistant wheat would both reduce risk and increase private investment in that very important and highly traded crop while simultaneously diversifying the rotation. Another excellent way to get the soil quality benefits of rotation is to add a winter cover crop….
“Probably the best way to facilitate more rotational diversity would be through education of the absentee landlord community. Much of the land in the Midwest is held in trusts for the families who have long since migrated to the cities. Typically all they do is collect the rent checks through a farm management company. If those families could be educated about sustainable cropping practices, they might be willing to engage in re-designed leases designed around medium to long-term economics rather than the typical annual, cash lease.”
Steve Savage is an independent expert for our GMO Answers site. He has more than 30 years of experience in agricultural technology having worked in academics (Colorado State University), at a global research company (DuPont), at a biotechnology start-up (Mycogen), and for the last 16 years as a consultant.
Visit Do GMO Crops Foster Monoculture? to read Steve’s answer in its entirety.