Monoculture March 29, 2020

Monoculture in agriculture is the practice of producing or growing a single crop, plant, or livestock species, variety, or breed in a field or farming system at a time. Polyculture, where more than one crop is grown in the same space at the same time, is the alternative to monoculture. Monoculture, widely used both in industrial farming and in organic farming, has allowed increased efficiency in planting and harvesting while simultaneously increasing the risk of exposure to diseases or pests.

Monoculturalism in human societies is the practice of actively preserving a national culture via the exclusion of external influences. Japan, China, South Korea, and North Korea are examples of monoculturalism. Usually a monocultural society exists by racial homogeneity, nationalistic tendencies, geographic isolation, or political isolation, sometimes but not always under a totalitarian regime.

Now think about homo sapiens as a crop, and apply the first definition. Cultural and racial differences have little if any effect on our susceptibility to viruses. We are all members of the species homo sapiens.

If you have been reading some of the garbage in the news lately, you might be skeptical of that. I read a piece a month ago that said Asians, especially Chinese, were more susceptible to Covid-19 than others. There have also been statements that black people are immune. Both claims are false.

Otis Brawley, a professor of epidemiology and oncology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, told NBC News:

I want to be very clear – there is, despite many claims to the contrary, no truth, no fact at all, in claims of genetic differences, immunity or susceptibility to disease based on race. I do not have and, to my knowledge, no one else has, any data demonstrating either racial or geographic immunity from coronaviruses.

The human population of the planet suffers from the same risks as the millions of acres of corn or soybeans planted across those states in the middle of the US. But there is one big difference: Those cornstalks can’t get in an airplane and fly to foreign countries and infect cornfields there as easily as people have been able to do for the past sixty or seventy years. Add to that the explosive growth in human populations, and the risk of an infection spreading quickly and uncontrollably is obvious. There have been many disease outbreaks in human history, going back at least to the Black Death Plague of the 14th century. (See Note) But these things are becoming more and more frequent. Modern medicine scrambles to develop vaccines to combat them, but it’s a constant struggle, as the viruses mutate, and new ones appear. This “novel” coronavirus caught us flatfooted. We are at least a year away from a vaccine, so we must resort to the ancient practice of isolation, just like the nobles in their castles, who barred the gates to outsiders during the Plague.

Life forms are protected by genetic diversity and geographic isolation. Disease pathogens cannot cause extinction if some portions of a population are immune or resistant to them, or if they have no path of migration to spread. The growth in the human monoculture, combined with high mobility, have created an ideal environment for propagation of diseases. The short-term measures we have taken, limiting travel and personal contacts, will probably allow us to limit the spread of this one until medical science can provide a defense. But what about the long-term effects? Clearly the travel and tourism industry are taking a big hit, and the aversion to travel may persist for a long time, perhaps indefinitely. Local restrictions on public gatherings will probably be relaxed eventually, but will there be a long-term effect on concerts, sporting events and the like?

Worst of all, when will we be blindsided by the next “novel” virus? Is this going to be the “new normal?” Are we getting a first glimpse of a sea change in human activities? If so, it will be a sad change. I liked it the way it was.


NOTE: The Bubonic Plague is a bacterial infection, but there is some doubt that it is the cause of the millions of deaths that occurred. Since 1984, scientists have put forward alternative explanations for the Black Death. For example, sociologist Susan Scott and biologist Christopher J. Duncan claim that a hemorrhagic fever, similar to the Ebola virus, caused the Black Death; and others blame anthrax or say that some now-extinct disease was the culprit.





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