Monoculture is as Bad for Farming as it is for the Energy Grid; why Policymakers Need to Think Like Coffee Growers

Image of Robusta Coffee plantation.

About 99% of all coffee consumed today comes from just two coffee bean species: arabica and robusta. However, due to increasing temperatures, crops are failing as the demand is growing. This has led to growers and scientists looking for the next great species that is both heat-resistant and pleasant tasting. Some are confident that the newly discovered Coffea Stenophylla strain will be the solution to this growing problem, though the intense work to introduce new species continues.

The monoculture of crops for farming makes sense at face value. Growing a single, profitable crop increases efficiency at every level and makes the use of machinery financially feasible, since you only need to invest in tools with specifications for one crop size. The benefits of economies of scale are clear — focusing your farming on one crop allows you to streamline production and increase profits.

However, the risks associated with monoculture are that it usually only takes one example of a blight (plant disease) to lay bare the inherent risks and long-term implications.

For example, the use of the ‘lumper’ potato variety, susceptible to the phytophthora infestans disease from the Americas, led to the Great Famine in Ireland in 1845. This famine caused the deaths of about 1 million people and the flight or emigration of up to 2.5 million more over the course of about six years.

Another example was the Great French Wine Blight from the phylloxera pest, which nearly killed the French wine industry in 1860 entirely. Furthermore, the 'Gros Michel type of banana, which most of today’s banana-flavored candy is based on, was also wiped out by a fungus disease. These cases clearly demonstrate the risks involved in having an industry dependent on a single agricultural product, so scientists and vendors create new diverse coffee strains and seed banks for the future.

We see the same processes from the 1860’s replicated in today’s energy systems. Systems tend to lean towards monoculture because the immediate benefits are large and the drawbacks are obscured.

Only six countries (Finland, France, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland) get less than 50% of their energy from fossil fuels.

World map showing the share of primary energy from fossil fuels, 2020.

Oil, gas, and coal have enormous benefits and are highly desirable due to their characteristics of being portable, non-weather dependent, and storable. It is also risky to have a fossil fuel-dependent system since you are at the behest of a small number of producers, transport costs, and incredible price volatility.

However, decarbonated grids can also face challenges:

Additionally, if you add in supply chain factors, such as the price of materials, a specialized educated workforce, fault lines, rare metals in demand, geopolitical instability, and wildlife devastated, you have an even broader portfolio of risks to be managed.

A reliable, sustainable, decarbonized grid is going to need ‘a lot of different eggs in a lot of different baskets’ approach. As with agriculture, you have to balance the efficiency needs with the innovation needs, and continually invest in and support ‘new strains’ of clean technology for your energy security.

What does this look like? See Helixos’ community-centered, system approach to decarbonization diagram below.

Helixos’ community-centered, system approach to decarbonization diagram.

As shown in this diagram, to systematically decarbonize a grid and secure enough energy supply to sustain high living standards, the sources of energy have to be diverse and must work together. Solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, and nuclear, together with battery storage and microgrid sharing, provide clean electricity to the grid, powering residential, commercial, and industrial areas.

At Helixos, we work with clients to understand how people, companies, and technologies fit into this system approach to decarbonization. We perform market research, stakeholder engagement, project management, and advise companies, investors, and policymakers on new clean technology.

See how Helixos is continuing to make the world a better place for everyone at our website.

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Helixos

Strategy consulting and technical advisory firm, working on projects that are aligned with sustainable development.