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A new study published last month in the journal PLOS ONE, shows that U.S. crop diversity is significantly lower today than it was 30 years ago.
Diversity has long been recognized as a basic tenet of sustainable agriculture. Growing a variety of foods not only improves resilience against drought and disease, but it’s also essential to long-term food security, biodiversity, and human nutrition. And conventional monocropping is tied a number of environmental issues, from pesticide-resistance to run-off from fertilizer. So the move toward fewer crops is a move away from sustainability.
As recently as 1982, for instance, five crops dominated U.S. agriculture. In 2012, it was only four. Greta Gramig, a weed ecologist and collaborator on the project also points out that by 1978, the first year of data they analyzed, much of the country’s crop diversity had already been lost. Small farms, which typically grew a greater variety of fruits and vegetables, have declined substantially over the last century. The study wasn’t intended to speak to the causes underlying the changes, but several forces are likely at work. Changes in technology and plant genetics have made it more cost-efficient and less-labor intensive to grow a single variety of crop, changing market demands and prices can also impact farmers’ choices in what to grow.
Fortunately, none of this is set in stone. Because farms are unique ecosystems that are replanted annually, these trends could be reversed fairly quickly. Hendrickson notes that crop rotation is one way farms can easily, and rapidly, add a few crops to their operations.
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