The Plight Of Agriculture: Monoculture And Inefficient Consumerism


created by staff using Canva

This is another in a series of Guest Editorials written by Pinole Valley High School students.

On a cold spring morning in 1920, a family of immigrants heads out before the sun rises and walks to the small plot of farmland that they are allotted. The family must first till the soil and sow strawberry seedlings for there to be a profitable harvest. Over the coming months, they diligently and carefully care for their land by weeding, watering, and keeping the plants free of pests. Once the berries are ripe, the family, friends, and neighbors help by handpicking and storing the berries to sell at the local market. When all the products are sold, they start again with another crop.

Based on today’s standards, this process from growing to transporting a pound of strawberries would be as close to a zero-carbon footprint as possible. According to a study done by the NASA Earth Observatory, any living organism–people and horses included–is part of something called the fast carbon cycle, where carbon exhaled from a living organism will become oxygen via plants, thus resulting in a net carbon gain of zero.

The modern process of product-to-table is more industrial and streamlined than ever before. Every single step has been carefully perfected to maximize output with minimum cost for the sake of capitalization. When it comes time for the farmer to grow a crop, there is a greatly reduced amount of manual labor to prepare the land for growing. Tractors till and process the land, while pesticides–up to 20 per crop–are used to kill bugs and weeds. Once the soil is ready, seedlings are manually sown by immigrant laborers. This all takes place on approximately 444 acres on the average farm. When the crop is ready to harvest, immigrant laborers pick and load the strawberries into trucks, and take them to a processing plant, they are then shipped off to markets across the world by land or sea.

The carbon footprint from this process of production to the consumer is huge. Approximately 18 billion metric tons of carbon is emitted, ⅓ of annual carbon emissions globally according to a recent study done by the United Nations.

The easiest thing is to point our fingers and blame corporations, governments, and the elite. But we must first acknowledge that not every farmer is a corporation. The next logical step is to ask ourselves how is it that a farmer who has owned that land for generations would knowingly deplete its fertility by shortsighted practices such as monoculture, which means repetitive farming of a single or similar crop, which eventually leads to deprivation of the soil’s nutrients, and saturation from plant disease. It’s also important to think about what led to such a dramatic change in the transportation of crops and the practices of consumerism as well.

While one might say that having a variety of crops growing at a manageable sustainable level seems wise at first glance, there are many economic and political reasons for farmers to use monoculture to make a profit. Farmers always think of what is most wanted by consumers. Once decided, they farm as much of the crop as possible, even if it has a negative net gain. Why do this, you ask? Subsidies are why. Subsidies are essentially free money that the government grants to encourage the production of any given crop. The idea behind subsidies is to cover farmers and stabilize the economy in case of natural or economic disasters. While this was a good idea before industrialization, it’s a more complicated problem now. Farmers flood the market with produce, the price of said produce goes down, so farmers in turn look to subsidies to make a profit. This is done so often that some farmers base their whole farming practices on maximizing subsidies from their crops. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S gave 46.5 billion dollars in subsidies to farmers this year.

Talking about the economy and agriculture can feel alien and overwhelming, but it is crucial to remember that a business depends entirely on consumers to make a profit. The process of food-to-table has evolved to accommodate the masses, and since people want instant gratification, no matter the cost, farmers have learned that they must maximize their harvest. The market has evolved to cut as many corners as possible in this pursuit of profit. A consequence of this is carbon emissions from growing crops out of season and flying crops across countries, resulting in 5.8 billion tons of carbon according to the U.N.

This may feel like a hopeless situation, but there is a way out. We have to think about the big picture. Farmers only act according to what makes them the most money, i.e, the market. And the market’s only goal is to make money by appealing to the consumer and selling them products. That leaves the variable in this equation the consumer–us. If we changed the way we consume foods, this would leave the rest of the chain no choice but to conform. By eating a wider variety of in-season foods locally, carbon emissions would go down drastically, and farmers would have no choice but to grow crops in a more sustainable manner and in a wider variety to accommodate for the new consumer palate.

It can feel hopeless when you see people around you eating foods that are harmful to the environment, but every revolution has to start somewhere. So next time you eat something, think of its journey.