Field of soybeans

Growing just one heavily concentrated crop, like these soybeans, can cause increased pest populations and water pollution.


The symbols of agricultural success in many parts of the world are endless fields of corn, soybeans or wheat, with identical crops stretching as far as the eye can see. Unfortunately, that image is also a sign of monoculture, an agricultural problem that could conceivably get much worse due to biofuels.

Monoculture refers to the practice of growing one heavily concentrated crop, rather than the rotation of various crops through a farmer's fields over time. While this is an economically attractive practice, playing off economies of scale to make the crop more profitable for the farmer, it can have severe environmental drawbacks. Hundreds -- even thousands -- of unbroken acres of one crop offer an irresistible target for plant pests; pest populations can explode beyond control in such a tempting environment. Likewise, the nutrients that are put back into the soil through crop rotation and allowing fields to lay fallow disappear under intense monocultural farming. Long-time monoculture farms have to use much more artificial fertilizer than their more sustainable peers, increasing water pollution. And the singular nature of a monoculture crop increases the risk of a total loss for the farmer; imagine the damage if a severe strain of corn blight hit an ethanol-producing corn farm [source: Altieri].

Monoculture isn't a problem confined to biofuel production; it's an issue that had been studied for years in relation to large-scale food crop production. But since many popular biofuel crops, such as corn and soybeans, are also popular food sources for much of the world, it stands to reason that the problems related to monoculture could get much worse as consumers demand more biofuel.