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August 5, 2012 / 74


Monoculture –

: the cultivation or growth of a single crop or organism especially on agricultural or forest land
: a crop or a population of a single kind of organism grown on land in monoculture
: a culture dominated by a single element : a prevailing culture marked by homogeneity
One of the classic modern examples of a monoculture is the Irish potato – it was cheap, it was filling, and the poor of Ireland had full bellies – until the potato blight destroyed the crop. Then people died of starvation by the wagon full.

In Ireland, the Great Famine was a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration between 1845 and 1852.[1] It is also known, mostly outside Ireland, as the Irish Potato Famine.[2] In the Irish language it is called an Gorta Mór (IPA: [ənˠ ˈɡɔɾˠtˠə ˈmˠoːɾˠ], meaning “the Great Hunger”)[fn 1] or an Drochshaol ([ənˠ ˈdˠɾɔxˌhiːlˠ], meaning “the bad times”).During the famine approximately 1 million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland,[3] causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%.[4] The proximate cause of famine was a potato disease commonly known as potato blight.[5] Although blight ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s, the impact and human cost in Ireland – where one-third of the population was entirely dependent on the potato for food – was exacerbated by a host of political, social and economic factors which remain the subject of historical debate.[6][7]

The famine was a watershed in the history of Ireland.[8] Its effects permanently changed the island’s demographic, political and cultural landscape. For both the native Irish and those in the resulting diaspora, the famine entered folk memory[fn 2] and became a rallying point for various nationalist movements as the whole island was then part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Modern historians regard it as a dividing line in the Irish historical narrative, referring to the preceding period of Irish history as “pre-Famine”.

In more recent times, we see a global dependency on two crops – corn and soy beans. It’s hard to buy any prepared or processed food these days without finding one or both of these crops in the ingredient lists. The world has allowed itself to become dependent on Big Ag – Corporate Agriculture – for its food. And Corporate Agriculture pushes their products to the exclusion of just about all other products. Their main crops are corn and soy beans.

So it would appear that mankind learned nothing from the Irish Potato Famine. As I drive through the heart of the US “corn belt” and see withered dry corn stalks with no ears on them, and soy beans that farmers I’ve talked to and overheard worrying that their soy bean plants will not set pods, I wonder if modern civilization (such as it is) will be able to weather this period of decreased food production?

In future times, will we refer to these years as “pre-famine” and “post-famine”? But more importantly, will we learn anything from the deaths caused by what appears to be a tendency of humans to ignore the disastrous results of developing and depending on a monoculture?



One Comment

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  1. Caleb Coy / Jul 8 2013 06:53

    Michael Pollan talks about the corn monoculture in the opening chapters of his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I blogged about the book here. This first post discusses the corn monoculture problem as he lays it out.

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