Single poppy in wheat field

The curse of monoculture

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by David ScheelLeave a Comment

At a time when arguments abound as to the best way of preserving our environment, there is at least one issue upon which all parties agree: we must maintain the greatest possible diversity of plant and animal species. It is for precisely this reason that the word “biodiversity” has entered the language. This being so, humankind’s ever-increasing predilection toward monoculture must be seen as the very antithesis of what we should be practising.

Monoculture is driven entirely by economics, and it can be seen as a double-edged sword flanged by two opposite, but equally guilty protagonists. On the one hand it is the producers, manufacturers and suppliers of product, with their attendant profit motive. More dangerously, on the other hand, it is consumer gullibility which is prepared to sacrifice diversity upon the altar of convenience.

The proponents of monoculture follow a very simple, two-phased strategy, based on competitive pricing and availability, and effective public relations and advertising campaigns. In doing so, they turn the rules of supply and demand on their head, and instead of giving the public what the public wants, they predetermine which products they wish to promote, and then tell the public what it wants. Effectively, this is commercial propaganda, for, as we all know, if a message is rammed home often and loudly enough, we will buy it, whether it is political stratagem, a healthcare campaign, or a new brand of potato chip.

This is why monoculture is not merely an issue of primary produce versus environmental balance; rather, it is a much wider social issue, for it pervades almost all aspects of our lives.

As an example, let us look at the music industry, which has only been known as the music ‘industry’ for a little over 30 years. Although it has always thrived on populism, until recent times people – especially young people – have been exposed to all sorts of different musical forms. If we take 1970 as a typical year, pop groups such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones vied for popularity with heavy metal bands such as Led Zeppelin. But at the same time, Simon and Garfunkel and Joan Baez were at their zenith, and the radio waves also transported the likes of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. For an orchestral combination – of any sort – to reach the charts today would be unthinkable. Today’s music is an unwavering barrage of pop, pop and more pop, inevitably with lyrics focussed on “loving you, baby” and all meted out in the same monotonous four beats to a bar rhythm. As for classical music, that has been totally marginalised, even in the teaching arena, where exposure to the classics, outside elite private schools, is minimal.

A sign of the times is the Australian Idol television show, a talent contest in which only one type of talent – pop singing – is permitted. Talent contests used to feature instrumentalists, comedians, dancers, instrumentalists; even impressionists, ventriloquists and magicians. Not any more. Now it is just pop singers, pop singers, and more pop singers. Now I have nothing against pop music, but the way in which record companies ram it into our ears, at the expense of all other musical forms, is surely no different from Henry Ford’s famous remark about the Model T: “You can choose any colour you want, provided it’s black.”

Australian Idol, of course, is just a clone of similar Idol series throughout the world, and herein lies another indicator of monoculture. If television is our most popular recreational pastime, then the networks, in their unending search for increased revenue from advertising, are progressively reducing audience choice as they identify those programs – always appealing to an element of voyeurism – which will pull the ratings. Thus, in addition to the age-old staples of soaps, and dramas featuring American police or American doctors (or, as a combination of both, American forensic investigators), we live in a world dominated by game shows and reality TV, both cheap to produce, and both governed by ever more stringent copyright rules as regards format. Thus, the format of Australian Idol is identical to that of its overseas cousins, and so too Big Brother, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and others. Entertainment, like McDonalds, is now just one big franchise.

Franchise, in fact, is another buzzword of monoculture, and the fast food industry is its most visible success story. If we are worried about the present epidemic of obesity, in both adults and children, we have to look no further than McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Hungry Jacks, Red Rooster and their compatriots. The fare dished out by these companies is not an example of giving the public what the public wants. It is, as I stated earlier, a classic example of blitzkrieg advertising campaigns, telling the public what it wants, and deliberately targeting the most impressionable among us: children.

I once had the dubious pleasure of interviewing the CEOs of both McDonalds and Coca Cola, and their “mission statements” were a chilling variation on a theme. The McDonalds CEO told me that his aim was to see everyone on planet Earth within five minutes of a McDonalds outlet. “Would this mean cutting a road through rainforest to enable jungle dwellers to have a Big Mac?” I asked. “Why not?” was the reply. The Coca Cola man was equally determined, proudly explaining that in the Peloponnese mountains of Greece, where roads were non-existent, his company used donkey carts to transport Coke to remote mountain villages. Perhaps we should alter the old expression to read: “Nothing is certain except death, taxes, a burger and coke.”

If fast food has changed our dietary habits, then so too have modern agricultural practices. One of the icons of junk food outlets is the ubiquitous potato chip, and it is an interesting irony to note that we might not have been blessed with the potato had not the Conquistador, Pizarro, discovered it in Peru. The potato was a staple food of the Incas, but it was by no means the only one. They received most of their dietary fibre from a grain called Quinoa, and that grain is still farmed today, and in Europe at least, is widely available on supermarket shelves, as is another South American favourite, hearts of palm. Last Christmas, Coles experimented with palm hearts by introducing them into selected supermarkets, then immediately withdrew them because the rules of FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) weren’t being obeyed. The product was not selling fast enough. This merely shows a complete lack of foresight on the part of management. If you stock a new item, and offer no explanation (or demonstration tasting table) to let people know what it is, of course it will not sell! Thus this delicious and nutritious vegetable is only found in very upmarket boutique delicatessens.

Such South American offerings as palm hearts and quinoa underscore the immense diversity of rainforest plants that can be commercially cultivated, but sadly, are not. Because these plants are specific to certain habitats their husbandry should be encouraged, as doing so would have no deleterious effects on the environment. Instead, we choose to grow just a small range of crops, such as potato, corn, rice and wheat, and level vast tracts of wilderness to do so. The same is true of livestock. There are many more sources of meat than just beef, lamb, pork and chicken, but we overlook them, as producers consider the alternatives to be commercially unviable.

In agriculture, monoculture is king, and we continue to blight the landscape by planting ever more fields of just the same few things. In an admirably unbiased study of genetically modified foods, Canadian scientist, Mark Winston, has this to say: “…the increase in human population …. has doubled at shorter and shorter intervals over the last thousand years. The result was increased acreage under cultivation and a fundamental remodelling of the globe toward managed rather than wild ecosystems. By 1998, 3,410,523,800 acres of land were under cultivation world-wide, an area larger than the United States. Entire ecosystems have disappeared, others remain but are threatened, and the sheer volume of people and area of farmland has been a major force of biological change.”1

Moreover, even those few staples which are being farmed over this vast acreage are being increasingly controlled by a handful of agribusiness giants, such as Monsanto, and the even larger Aventis. Not surprisingly, variety of choice is again the victim. In 1903, 786 varieties of corn were available in the United States. A hundred years later, that figure was down to just 52 varieties, as agribusiness quite literally weeded out those strains which were less profitable. In so doing, crop yields and resistance to insect pests were the prime considerations; nutritional value was barely considered. For all we know, the most beneficial varieties of corn may already have been lost.

As a final example of monoculture, and perhaps one that binds all the others together, let us take the ubiquitous shopping mall, where the independently owned small private retailer is an endangered species.

Have you ever wondered why all shopping malls look alike, and why they all contain the same shops? A typical list might include the following: Coles, Myer, Liquorland, Woolworths, K-Mart, Gloria Jeans Coffee, Noni-B, Ed Harris, Michel’s Patisserie, Target, The Reject Shop, and so on. There are two reasons for all this monotonous replication. The first is that shopping centre developers, such as Westfield, deliberately target these companies to lease floor space. The second is inadequate government regulation of the retail sector, and Australia provides one of the worst examples. As recently as four years ago, just two retailers, Coles Myer and Woolworths, controlled fully 81% of all retail trade, and this figure predates Coles’ entry into fuel discounting; so we can safely assume that that percentage has risen recently. This duopoly has a virtual stranglehold on the supermarket and department store sector, and is a major player in liquor sales, petrol, office equipment, hardware, clothing and pretty well everything else. With so much clout, it is easy to see that these corporate megaliths can easily have the final say in who can set up shop in a mall, and who can not. A case in point is the recent redevelopment of a major mall in the western Sydney suburb of Blacktown. The old mall boasted all the usual tenants, plus several independent shops, including an excellent fishmonger. Woolworths did not like the proximity of this fishmonger; so when the redevelopment began, he was given his marching orders. His twenty-plus varieties of fresh fish were now replaced by the 10 or so (half of them frozen) on sale at Woolworths. Similarly, the major supermarkets have been known to deliberately undersell their fruit and vegetables, merely to put the neighbouring private greengrocer out of business. And it seems the major chains are still not satisfied with their profit margins, for they are now vigorously attempting to obtain permission to install American style in-store pharmacies. (Please, let us all sign the petitions which are posted in our local chemist’s shop.)

This is monoculture at its worst, for it reduces the ordinary consumer to the level of a robot, who has to buy what he or she is told to buy, by multi-billion dollar corporations after nothing other than satisfying their shareholders.

This is also why it is up to the consumer to reverse the trend, because if we do not seek out variety – in all things – our very culture and independence of thought are under threat of a 1984-style Big Brother intervention, where Big Brother is not government, but private enterprise itself.

We should always remember that, ultimately, it is we who have the right to choose what we eat, what books we read, what music we listen to, and what clothes we buy. We can vote with our feet and source our consumables from elsewhere, and there are signs that this is beginning to happen. [Another reason for readers to support organics and health food stores who not only give away this magazine but also offer you the hope for a new ecology in so many ways. Ed.] So let us briefly revisit two of the areas I have already mentioned – music and supermarkets.

Recently a major Sydney newspaper put a classical music CD as a give-away in its Sunday edition. This was so popular that the newspaper’s main rival did exactly the same in the following week. Television shows such as Dancing with the Stars, however tacky they may be at times, have at least reminded a whole new generation that music is available in multiple rhythms. And when it comes to grocery outlets, it is highly significant that growers’ markets are more popular today than they have been at any time over the last 50 years, and new ones are opening almost monthly.

These, and other examples, should send a loud and clear message to the proponents of monoculture: we don’t like it.

 

1. Source: Mark Winston, “Travels in the Genetically Modified Zone”, Scribe, 2002

 

David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humourist. Away from live performance he is also a respected writer and broadcaster on environmental and conservation issues. He lives in the Blue Mountains, NSW

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