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The effects of corn monoculture on soils

by Judith Willson

Created on: June 03, 2010   Last Updated: June 22, 2010

The US is the world’s biggest grower of corn, also know as maize, closely followed by China.  Maize was originally grown with nitrogen fixing beans by native Americans.  This was an effective combination that kept the soil healthy and productive.  This is not the case for most corn grown today.  The methods of growing it are now far from natural and it is commonly grown as a single crop on vast tracts of land.  This does nothing for either the environment or the quality of the soil itself. 

Corn is an enormously versatile grain that is grown for human consumption, livestock feed, biofuels, grain alcohol and even to make plastics.  It is in fact one of the largest and most important crops in the world and many countries depend on it.  However growing corn as a monoculture is a damaging practice and can cause serious environmental damage. 

One of the most noticeable effects of vast monocultures is a reduction in the top soil.  This erosion occurs if a single crop is grown in the same place for a period of time.  In addition the nutrients taken up by the plants such as nitrogen and iron are not replaced.  The soil becomes of lower and lower quality.  This can be avoided either with crop rotation or by mixed planting.  Neither is considered practical for the industrial scale of modern farming methods. 

The second serious effect corn monocultures have on the soil is to encourage the build up of pathogens and pests.  The fungi, bacteria, insects and other organisms that attack corn have it made with huge quantities of the same variety being grown in the same place for years. Unchecked they would reproduce to plague proportions.  A monoculture also means that the entire crop is vulnerable to the same pest.  With a mixture of types of corn some would have resistance.  When they are all the same this is not the case. 

This leads to a need for vast quantities of chemicals.  Fertiliser is required to replace the nutrients leached from the soil.  Fungicides and insecticides are necessary to kill the pests that build up. These also kill any organisms that might have kept the pests to some degree in check so a natural balance can never be established.  Agricultural chemicals are one of the main causes of water and soil pollution, and some remain in the environment for decades. 

The expense of these chemicals is offset by the fact that corn is heavily subsidised in the States and elsewhere.  The answer to the environmental degradation caused by monocultures might lie here.  Farmers would be more likely to switch to less damaging farming methods if the risk was offset by subsidies.  Rather than being encouraged to grow monocultures they could be encouraged to practice crop rotation and lower chemical farming.  In the long run this would be far better for the land they depend on.

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