Monoculture is defined as “the cultivation or growth of a single crop or organism, especially on agricultural or forest land.” The first time I remember hearing about monoculture was when I read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire back around 2001. Monoculture is a big deal in agriculture, and it just may become a household word for Americans of all persuasions in the near future…
If you’ve ever driven through Iowa and looked out the window to see clean, identical rows of corn extending all the way to the horizon… that’s what monoculture looks like. Likewise, if you’ve driven through Kansas and seen amber waves of grain, waving uniformly as far as the eye can see… that was monoculture as well.
The Dangers of Monoculture
Monoculture is widely viewed as a bad idea because it means that we invest heavily in one variety of crop, putting all of our proverbial eggs into one basket. If a pest or disease comes along and attacks that chosen variety, we’re simply out of luck, as all of our resources were sunk into that single variety, and now it has a big problem.
History has demonstrated the danger of monocultures several times, most famously in Ireland during the Great Famine of the 1840s.
Ireland invested heavily in the potato during the 18th and 19th centuries. Ireland’s rural poor were especially dependent on the potato as their primary staple. In the mid 1840s, a fungus called Potato Blight (Phytophthora infestans) made its way from South America, to North America, and on to Europe. Within only a few years, potato blight had spread worldwide. Crops were lost on many continents, but the effects were most devastating in Ireland, where potatoes had been commonly grown in monoculture. The disease wiped out a significant portion of the potato harvest for several consecutive years, and hundreds of thousands of Ireland’s poor starved to death.
And this was in the 1840s, before steam-powered railroads and ships were widely adopted – long before commercial flight. But even back then, it took an aggressive fungus about 2 years to travel from South America, north to the U.S., and across the Atlantic to Europe – with horse-drawn wagons and wind-powered clipper ships as its only helpers.
Similar scenarios have played out over time – and some of them have happened very close to home. 100 years after the Great Famine in Ireland, Victoria oat blight swept through oat monocultures in the United States. And then in the 1970s, southern corn leaf blight spread through the U.S. These are examples of monocultures being targeted by a single, well-adapted pathogen, right here in America.
In the 1950s, monocultures of Gros Michel bananas were famously obliterated by Panama disease on banana plantations around the world from South America, to Africa and Australia.
Despite history’s repeated lessons on this subject, in today’s industrial agriculture environment monoculture is perfectly commonplace. Genetic modification of crops lends itself to monoculture, as endless fields of beans and grain can be modified to resist one specific pesticide or herbicide, enabling cost-effective weeding and pest treatment from crop-dusting planes overhead. The result is exactly the scenario about which history has repeatedly warned us. While the modified crops are resistant to a controlled substance manufactured in a lab, they are abnormally susceptible to naturally occurring pathogens. Any one pathogen that adapts to prey on the monocultured crop can run rampant, free from the natural checks and balances present in a diverse ecosystem.
History Repeats Itself
And according to the journal PLOS Pathogens from the Public Library of Science, we may be on the verge of another global monoculture backfire today. On November 19th, they published a study detailing the legacy of the Panama disease disaster, one generation later. The Gros Michel banana variety, which had been reproduced around the world by tissue cloning, slowly gave in to Panama disease around the world in the middle of the 20th century. To beat the Panama disease pathogen, banana growers identified a different variety that was resistant to the disease, and they began to produce that alternate variety, the Cavendish, in place of the failing Gros Michel. No significant changes were made in the method of production – only the variety of banana was changed.
Who would have guessed it? The pathogen behind Panama disease (since identified as Fusarium oxysporum) has naturally adapted to target the new Cavendish variety of bananas. First identified in the 1990s, the new strain of Panama disease (Tropical Race 4) has wiped out banana plantations in Taiwan, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, the Philippines, Jordan, Pakistan, and Lebanon. The Cavendish currently represents 99 percent of the global banana market. And, it seems that its time is limited. With no known controls, it’s only a matter of time before the banana plantations of Latin America are infected with the new strain of Panama disease.
As the study’s authors note, “Any disease management eventually fails in a highly susceptible monoculture.”
Banana producers will likely, and predictably, find another variety of banana that is resistant to Tropical Race 4, and substitute that variety where the Gros Michel and now the Cavendish have failed. And we’ll enjoy bananas again, until the disease adapts to prey on the new variety. But the larger lesson to be learned here is that monoculture itself is inherently unsustainable.
One can’t help but wonder… what if an environment existed where many different banana plants of diverse genetic origins were grown alongside other plants with different genetic and microbial profiles? Would Panama disease fade to the background? What happens when you introduce Tropical Race 4 into an environment of thriving biological diversity, instead of a massive monoculture of its pre-selected prey?
Perhaps one day we’ll find out.
In the meantime, what can we do about the impending banana-pocalypse?
Dealing with the Banana-pocalypse
One thing that we can all do is to plant our gardens full of organic heirlooms of many varieties, and then talk to anyone who will listen about the importance of biodiversity. If we can demonstrate that diversity works on a small scale, and infect that idea into the minds of everyone around us, we might one day reach a tipping point where everyone recognizes both the danger of monoculture and the benefit of biodiversity. With each heirloom variety you preserve, and with each landrace variety you select, you pave the way towards a cultural shift of understanding biodiversity.
Personally, in my household, the first thing we’ll do is try to find a good substitute for frozen banana pieces in our smoothies. Dang! Frozen bananas are awesome smoothie fodder… I wonder if anyone can recommend a good substitute? Maybe frozen sunchoke tubers? If you have any ideas to help us out, use the comments section below to let me know about them…
• National Center for Biotechnology Information: An Andean origin of Phytophthora infestans inferred from mitochondrial and nuclear gene genealogies
• PLOS Pathogens: Worse Comes to Worst: Bananas and Panama Disease—When Plant and Pathogen Clones Meet
• The Washington Post: Bye, bye, bananas
Thanks, Michael. Yes, we too enjoy banana smoothies. I hope someone has a good alternative. Maybe we need to buy the alternative smaller varieties of bananas, even though they are more expensive, thereby casting our vote.
Yeah I’m with you on that Marvin. I believe in voting with your dollars. But – the stuff I want to vote for always costs more money.
I watch that film “The Story of Stuff” every now and then to remind myself that the unbelievably cheap stuff at the box store isn’t really that cheap…
Bad weather coming….Banana-nado?
Haha that’s banan-ilarious!
Bananas are a staple here as well. I honestly can’t remember a time when we were banana-less. I use frozen mango in a kefir smoothie. Mango and raw honey seem to make my homemade, raw milk kefir tolerable for my hubby. He literally hates the tart-sour taste of kefir (I love it!) but those two additives make it drinkable for him. I buy frozen organic mango in a 3 pound bag at Costo for around $10.
Hi Robin! Yeah, kefir is kind of an acquired taste isn’t it… Maybe try breaking your husband in with a sweet batch of water kefir? We made some recently with ginger that came out just like ginger ale.
I would “nix” the Sunchoke idea for your smoothies but they are a healthy alternative to the potato. Just plant in a place they can be contained, I have heard “horror” stories. I grow mine in very large black nursery pots that I turn over onto a tarp at harvest. Some years ago I was reading about “Local Food” and decided to cut way back on foods that did not grow in my region. I took an old Amish approach on what they call their “Sweet & Sours” which are Jam, jelly, curds, chutneys, pickled fruits & vegetables and dried fruits. Rare and hard to get fruits and vegetable were never eaten as a “course” but preserved fruit & veg always accompanied the basic meals as a side enhancement to the meal with the much rarer fruits only served by the teaspoon. They did have shipping that brought the exotic fruits & spices from South America to their area in the north but it was costly and was eaten sparingly.
Once a year I can purchase fresh Pineapple for $1.99 each and that’s when I go-to-town making my jam. The pineapple I eat is only used as a topping on muffins or lightly in a dessert. Bananas can be treated in the same fashion and used in moderation as Banana Butters, and various jams. “Sorbets” for desserts can also be made by blending fruits until light and airy and freezing in ice cube trays. These can be popped-out and put into freezer bags. A cube can be served in a bowl with a sweet cream, coconut milk, topped with some fresh berries for breakfast or as a dinner dessert a cube served in a dessert dish with a light splash of banana or orange liquor, a few blueberries or raspberries and a cookie is a treat.
For daily and long term fruit usage look at what grows in your region. Start searching out recipes that utilize them and use them first.
Hi Sheri – Great idea about growing the sunchokes in containers. I have a few 10/15 gallon nursery pots left over – maybe I’ll give that a try.
We alternate smoothies at my house – for breakfast smoothies we keep them very healthy and sustainable with homegrown greens, local moringa, raw local honey, blackberries & dewberries, figs, etc. But for lunch/dinner smoothies, we get creative (and unsustainable) with bananas, chocolate, and other goodies that feed my sweet tooth. We could definitely stand to cut back on the exotic sweets, and I guess the banana-pocalypse is a good opportunity to get started on that. Thanks – Michael
I’m in the Philippines and have very successfully organically addressed the fusarium wilt issue in bananas and other crops, such as abaca. It’s Philippine Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority (FPA) registered and licensed as an organic input, cost effective, environmentally safe for those doing the application, the water and the bananas, simple to apply and very effective in not only combating the disease but as a bonus also improves the health and production of the banana plants.
The large plantation operators that grow the bananas you import are not interested in a locally offered organic solution. They want chemicals from big name companies.
Hi James – I’d be very interested to read about the solution you have. I’ve had success dealing with fusarium wilt in tomatoes with an organic fungicide that uses a beneficial microorganism (Streptomyces lydicus). Is your product something like that? Send us a link!
You are SO right on with this Michael! It will probably take wiping out many different monocrops before anything will be done here in the States to rectify it. That’s why I grow my own groceries myself.
Thanks Barbara – Yeah growing your own is a surefire way to make sure that you’re not supporting the monocrop industry. If we get enough people on board, we just might hit that tipping point of awareness sooner rather than later… You never know 🙂
Avocados go well in smoothies and u can freeze ahead of time. They make the texture very smooth.
I do love bananas in my smoothie tho
Hi Bek – Yeah we’re going to try out avocados. I can imagine that they’ll have about the same texture as the frozen bananas bring. And I guess we’ll add a little extra honey, or some dates as Andrej suggested, to get the smoothies nice and sweet!
I use avocado instead of banana in my smoothies.
Nice idea – we’re going to try that out. Thanks Lynne
Have you tried frozen paw paws? Frozen persimmons?
Unfortunately, my persimmon tree died over the summer. It was in a corner of the yard where there have been two different construction projects happening on adjacent lots, and the abuse it took was too much… I’m definitely going to take advantage of the bare root planting season to replace it, so I should be able to get some persimmons back in the rotation in a couple of years. Thanks!
One possible substitute for bananas are a combination of avocados (the creamy texture is similar to a banana) and deglet dates (the sweetness is similar to a banana). The resulting smoothie instead of being creamy in color will be green. The dates can be crushed/cut up into pieces and boiled in a little water to allow more even distribution of the date in the smoothy. I have eaten avocados and dates in a salad an the combination is tasty.
Thanks Andrej – We’ll definitely be trying out avocados – those seem to be the front-runner for a banana replacement. And the dates are a great idea too – we have used dehydrated dates before but we didn’t boil them beforehand and they ended up being a little chunky… Do you use fresh dates or dehydrated? Thanks – Michael
I use organic dried dates found in the bulk isle in the food store. Are dehydrated dates produced by taking fresh dates and removing most if not all the water ? I made a mini smoothy with about 5 or 6 pitted deglet dates each halved, and each half cut into 3 pieces, boiled in a steel 8″ pan filled with a shallow pool of water filled to a minimum depth of half the height of each date piece up to level with each date piece and mashed with a fork and boiled down and continually mashed. I filled a small blender with the avocado cut into 2 cm x 2 cm (approximate) pieces and filled the interstitial space between the avocados with water. Then there are two permutations 1) Add the entire date mash or 2) Place the date mash into a filter (with 1mm – 2mm size holes) and collect the date juice and add to the avocado/water mixture. After I did this I found that the avocado/water/date mixture in 1) (tastes just right for my pallate) and was twice as sweet as permutation 2).
Nice – thanks. I have a bit of a sweet tooth, so I’ll probably try it with the date mash left in…
frozen coconut milk, or coconut butter or oil
Tofu if you eat it
Hmm white beans is an intriguing idea. We’re going to try that out too. Thanks!
According to William Davis’ book, “The Grain Free Cure”, raw potatoes, peeled, and chia seed add a nice thickening to a smoothie, along with the prebiotic fiber that makes them healthy. Frozen berries work well, too. Blueberries and raspberries being the best. Whole strawberries make a huge noise in a blender! These might be viable alternatives for when the banana-pocalypse hits. (I have been enjoying the green banana smoothie recipe lately, so this article is NOT good news here. )
For the raw potatoes, are those sweet potatoes? That would actually be a much more sustainable option for me – they grow well here – don’t seem to mind the heat and don’t need too much water.
Hi Michael, Firstly I would like to say yes I agree with you regarding biodiversity in the garden and agriculture and using heirloom varieties. It is something as an organic seedling grower and seller I am passionate about.
What I would like to say about your article is that it is a bit of over kill eg – the new strain of Panama disease (Tropical Race 4) has wiped out banana plantations. I live in Queensland Australia the banana growing state of Australia and only 3 banana plantations have been infected with Panama disease. They haven’t been wiped out they are just under very strict quarantine. Actually we have another problem arising which is bunchy top and the main culprit for the spread of the disease is back yard growers who have no idea that they have it in their banana plants.
So what I would like to add to this conversation is that everyone even the home gardener needs to be aware of disease/pest issues in their crops/fruit plants and deal with it appropriately eg – If you are going to grow bananas for example you need to recognise what diseases are around and make sure that where you buy your pup from is disease free and that the plant is strong and healthy. No matter how hard it is to find a plant resist the urge to buy that sick spindly plant because you have finally found it.
Pests are also a major vector for carrying diseases knowing how to organically deal with them is another critical aspect of disease control. For example here in oz we have a native fruit fly as well as accidentally introduced species, I am regularly asked how to deal with the problem and am constantly surprised that people tell me they put the fruit in their compost. The very first control method is pick up all dropped fruit from the ground and either solarize it for 2 wks in a black plastic bag or burn the fruit, as the fruit fly grub maturates in the ground. So unless the compost reaches a particular temperature all they are doing is breeding more fruit fly.
To recap – know the diseases that can affect your plants and know the pests that can carry those diseases, then know how to deal with them properly. As home gardens can be the breeding grounds for the spread of agricultural diseases and pests.
Hi Meg – Thanks for adding this to the discussion. I agree with you that it’s important for people to stay informed about the diseases in their areas, for sure.
I won’t pretend to be an expert on growing bananas, but I did do a fair amount of reading while I was working on this, and I found 2 instances of Australian banana plantations being “wiped out” as a result of Tropical Race 4. 1997 at Berry Springs, NT and 1999 at Middle Point, NT – all banana plants destroyed by injection of glyphosate at both sites (here: http://www.musalit.org/seeMore.php?id=6605).
I don’t do smoothies, but I do like to make a similar drink with whey protien, a raw egg from our free-range chickens, and frozen blueberries. We have about 40 blueberry bushes in our food forest (along with other berries, 4 varieties of grapes and about 10 varieties of fruit trees. These are all separate from our vegetable garden. We get so many blueberries that we freeze most of them and use them in lots of different recipes. We still have about 5 gallons in our freezer waiting to be used before this summer’s harvest.