26 May, 2022


Monocultures & Monoculturalism: A Cause Of Pandemics & Social Disharmony 

By Kirthi Tennakone

Prof. Kirthi Tennakone

A monoculture is one single genetically identical crop planted over a large cleared area. In a broader sense it means a species of plants or animals dominating a region. Our planet is essentially a monoculture of humans. This species marginalized all the other animals in occupying the biosphere. Humans have also promoted monocultures of plants and domesticated animals, eliminating varieties naturally present in the habitat. They are largely selective in choosing food and consume few brands of vegetables and animals raised as monocultures.  

Excessive monocultures are inherently insecure and susceptible to external influences. These systems can be maintained and developed only at a cost and degrade the environment.

Monoculturalism imply a different but conceptually related intension. It is the promotion of heritage or cult incidental to one group in the society. This attitude provoke distrust among communities, creating situations conducive to conflicts and consequent misery and economic downfall.

The dangers of monocultures and monoculturalism reflects the strength of diversity. 

Why It Is Harder To Maintain A Monoculture? And Why They Degrade The Environment? 

In nature different organisms live harmoniously interacting symbiotically and competitively. Disturbing this balance by concentrating one species into a large area costs much and create chaos in the environment outside the region. The above consequence follows from an immutable law of nature referred to as the ‘Second Law of Thermodynamics’ which states that orderliness in one region of a closed system can be achieved only by imposing disorder elsewhere in that system. A monoculture is more orderly than a forest where different species are mixed-up. Forests are natural and self-sustained, whereas monocultures are man-made and nourished at an expense.

Imagine a forest covered island where the inhabitants live solely on its resources. To establish a monoculture there; a portion of the land will have to be cleared, a crop planted and nurtured. All this work necessitates drawing material supplies and energy from rest of the island damaging the environment. The more orderly monoculture, inevitably creates disorder outside its confine.

Just like humans, pests and pathogens selectively choose their food getting accustomed to some specialties. A closely packed community of identical organisms would be a golden opportunity for them to proliferate moving from one host to the other. Whenever a monoculture establishes, sometime or other, the right pest or the pathogen will arrive, feed and breed there, weakening or destroying it. Thus monocultures poses the risk of epidemics, which turn into pandemics, when same types of crops or farm animals are adopted worldwide. Consequently, maintenance of monocultures frequently demand pest or pathogen control. Furthermore, in absence of symbiotic relationships between different species, a monoculture needs to be heavily supplemented with resources extracted from the exterior environment.

The ingenuity of Homo sapiens, permitted the civilization to circumvent the dangers of monocultures to some extent and expand overtaking all the other members of the animal kingdom. Nevertheless, they cannot stand indifferent to innate vulnerability of monocultures. Pandemics and disasters, are to be expected.  Such events sometimes change the course of history.

Irish Potato Disease That Changed The World 

Potatoes were first cultivated by South American Indians domesticating a wild variety. Although Spanish introduced the crop to Europe around 1570, it took more than one century to gain wide acceptance as a healthy substitute for wheat and maize. Compared to grains, potato growing turned out be easier and allowed utilization of inferior soils .The cheaper food resource increased the European population – potato starch calories fueled the industrial revolution providing the necessary workforce. To symbolize the virtue of the crop the French Royalty garlanded themselves with purple potato flowers. 

During 18th and 19th centuries Ireland has been a poor country in Europe, facing severe food insecurity. Potatoes proved to be a viable solution, when the planting of a favorite variety was expanded – making potatoes the staple food of Ireland. A previously unknown pathogen similar to a fungus struck the monoculture in 1845 rapidly spreading throughout the country, causing a famine of unprecedented magnitude lasting six years. Roads all over were packed with people begging and pleading for food. When crop failed penniless farmers weakened by hunger could not to pay the property rent. Landlords forcibly evicted them adding much to agony. Nearly one million died of starvation and illnesses caused by malnutrition – survivors resembled walking skeletons.  Another million migrated – mostly to United States.

The potato blight originated in Ireland rapidly spread into other parts of Europe divesting plantations everywhere. Economic distress aroused social agitation demanding reforms in land ownership, more liberal governance and freedom of expression. As a result many European monarchies fell or compelled to limit their authority – a reinvigoration of the spirit of French revolution – carried Europe further towards democracy. On the other hand Karl Marx attempted to interpret the potato blight as an outcome of the British imperialism.  The manifesto of the communist party by Marx and Engels was launched during the time of the potato crisis. Marx’s monograph “Das Capital” analyzed the Irish potato famine in terms of his ideology.  Perhaps the Irish potato blight had at least an indirect bearing on Russian revolution as well. 

Coffee Blight In Sri Lanka: Another Disastrous Consequence Of A Monoculture 

The origin of coffee drinking remains obscure. According to an Ethiopian legend: a goat herder noted his animals turned more active and didn’t sleep when they ate berries of this tree. He passed information to the monk of a monastery, who prepared a drink out of coffee seeds. The refresh of the decoction gained momentum improving technique of preparation – by 15th century coffee was commercially grown in the Arabian Peninsula. Drinking hot brew made out of roasted coffee seeds had been popular in boutiques in the region – referred to as ‘Schools of Wise’.  Undoubtedly, it was Arab Traders who introduced coffee and 

‘Kopi Kade’ cult to Sri Lanka. Those days ‘Kopi Kade’ – a meeting point for dialogue was indeed a ‘School of Wise’.

Around 1740 Dutch ventured to try coffee cultivation in Sri Lanka. The effort was not entirely successful and British experienced a similar situation in attempting to plant coffee in the low country.  When coffee grown in the hill country during 1830s turned out be profitable, the Colonial British Government rushed to expand the acreage – framed laws for facilitation and collecting revenue. On basis of Crown Lands Encroachments Ordinance of 1840, peasants were evicted from their inherited farmlands to grow coffee. Thousands of acres of lush virgin forest sold to foreigners were felled and burnt – disregarding the cruelty inflicted to animals living in the habitat. Coffee grew luxuriantly over the hills and the bloom resembling snow clad mountain slopes attracted European artists. The bumper harvest of coffee beans increased year by year exceeding 100 million pounds. The affluent enjoyed burgeoning economy while poor suffered from tax penalties. Ceylon gained reputation as most prosperous British colony – the Imperial Government boasted that the grab of Serendib is one of its greatest accomplishments.

In 1869 shunted plants with yellow spotted leaves appeared in a peripherally located estate of the vast plantation complex. The symptom spread from estate to estate drastically reducing the yield – within a decade the entire crop in the Island contracted the disease. Ceylon Colonial Government sought the help of Britain to resolve the problem. Responding to the request, young botanist by the name Harry Marshall Ward was sent to Sri Lanka. Working at Peradeniya Gardens, Ward identified the pathogen as a fungus dispersed via spores. He further stated that the fungus probably existed as an innocuous organism in the local environment. Plantation of a single strain of coffee defenseless to the fungus has been the cause of the epidemic. Ward recommended distancing of plants from each other and masking them by another species to screen the invasion of spores. Destruction of coffee plantations by the fungus was beyond recovery. 

Wind dispersed fungal spores from Sri Lanka coffee groves all over- from South East Asia to Africa and Pacific and from there to Latin America. Later breeding of resistant varieties and agrochemicals satisfactorily controlled the fungus – for which there is no permanent cure.  Even today coffee worldwide is threatened by this fungus named ‘Himileia Vastatrix ‘and nicknamed ‘Devastating Emily’ by British planters in Sri Lanka.                      

Ignoring Ward’s advice planters replaced coffee in Sri Lanka by a monoculture of tea. Fortunately there were no major set-backs due to attacks by pathogens.

Dangers Of Expanding Monocultures 

The world’s population as at present cannot be fed without continuation of existing monoculture food sources, until diversity preserving alternatives are developed. The real danger is limitless expansion of monocultures crops and animal herds including humans – which demand enormous quantity of energy – drawn at the expense of pollution.  This would disproportionately amplify the instabilities of such systems and degrade environment beyond repair. We need to be vigilant and be prepared to address risks of monoculture failures and retain the diversity of strains.

Monoculturalism And Multiculturalism 

The ramifications of Irish potato disease and Sri Lankan coffee blight goes beyond crop failures and pandemics. These two disasters originated as a result of growing pure strains of potatoes and coffee neglecting diversity. Analogously, monoculturalism – the opposition to multicultural trends in a society by a majority group have adverse repercussions on communal harmony.

United Nations in the Declaration on Cultural Diversity states ‘Cultural diversity is as necessary as for humankind as biodiversity is for nature”. Again cultural diversity influences occupational diversity and variety in thinking and beliefs essential to social advancement. Compare two hypothetical communities one constituted exclusively of persons possessing skills in managing crops and animals and the other with those of same capabilities plus carpenters and blacksmiths. Obviously the latter progress faster and stand more sustainable. Similarly it is intellectually rewarding to live in a country enriched with different faiths – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam – including non-believers. 

One’s mode of thinking and approach towards problem solving   influenced by the mother tongue. Linguistic pluralism in mother tongue plus the knowledge of a widely spoken world language for intercommunity discourse, elevate and diversify the creativity of a society. The United Nations Declaration mentioned previously also remarks ‘creation draws on roots of tradition, but flourishes in contact with other cultures’.   

The stigma of monoculturalisim steers distrust among communities, polarizing distinct cultures in a society into groups – the primary cause of conflicts. According to United Nations three quarters of world’s major conflicts have cultural dimension. The greatest human conflict in recent times, the World War II was tainted with this malady – the Aryan supremacy. 

Coronavirus and previous pandemics, failure of monoculture crops and conflicts triggered by the attitude of monoculturalism are repeated reminders for us preserve diversity at all levels. 

The pertinent question is not the origin of coronavirus as such agents naturally surface when the conditions ripen, but what made it to spread so rapidly all over the world. When human population continue to encroach indigenous habitats endangering other species and expand monocultures of selected strains. The risk of pathogens hitting humans and his monocultures escalate. Likewise the problem is not occurrence of conflicts, but remedying the causes that polarize society into sectors based on cultural differences. 

The message is world needs to preserve diversity in all aspects and in the broadest sense.

*Prof. Kirthi Tennakone, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hantana, Kandy

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