Monocrops for Sustainability

The vast, unecologically monocropped fields of the midwest USA are filling with genetically modified grains and soybeans that enrich Monsanto at the expense of the health of people and animals who eat these harvests. Small scale diversified agriculture that refreshes soil, plant and animal bio-diversity (permaculture) creates a greater yield in less space. However, there are some large scale crops that are environmentally enthralling.

Oil-bearing crops including soy, sunflower, peanuts and canola provide a sustainable alternative to petroleum. The earliest diesel engine, displayed at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in 1900, ran on peanut oil. Today’s biodiesel is often made from spent frying oil from restaurants, giving it the environmental beauty of recycling, the political beauty of being readily available without import, the aesthetic beauty of smelling like popcorn, and the sustainable beauty of being significantly less polluting and greenhouse gas-producing than petroleum.

My friend Ano Tarletz runs his farm truck on homemade bio-diesel. He says it takes one restaurant to support one truck. Since the restaurant pays Ano to take away their spent frying oil, his diesel fuel costs him “minus twenty cents per gallon.” Artist Shari Elf does not make her own bio-diesel—a neighbor who does delivers a 55 gallon drum to her house, from which she gasses up her new diesel Volkswagen Jetta. She pays $3.50 per gallon for it, but says it’s worth it.

Another large scale crop that makes my heart sing is kenaf, a relative of cotton and okra, grown as a tree-free paper, fabric and industrial fiber. It grows up to eighteen feet in five months, uses no harmful chemicals in processing, and is fully recyclable. Kenaf paper saves forests. We need to support this industry! I look for kenaf products when I buy cards and stationery.