If you've read The Omnivore's Dilemma, or are aware of big industrial's grasp on agriculture, or pay attention to your food sources, you likely have heard the term "monoculture." Monoculture is defined as "the practice of producing or growing one single crop over a wide area." You know that animals are separated into feedlots far away from Old MacDonald's farm. You know that corn fields the size of cities sprawl over middle America. You know there is no true variety to be found on the shelves of our supermarkets. Corn is in everything. Corn is king.
You likely are aware of monoculture's deadly effects. Monocultural specialization leaves the fields, cows, and so on particularly susceptible to disease. Monocultural planting depletes the soil. It requires vast amounts of chemicals - both fertiziliers and pesticides - to maintain. These, in turn, seep down the Mississippi creating the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. Feedlots result in inhumane treatment of animals, kept alive only by antibiotics. The animals' manure, rather than being a regenerative, resembles toxic waste.
You shake your head and say, ahhh, but I don't buy processed any more. I've bought in to a CSA. I grow my own. I shop at the farmer's market. "Monoculture", you say, is bad and I am doing my part to avoid it.
But industrial agriculture is only one form of monoculture that is strangling America. It is the most obvious. The easiest to recognize and therefore to avoid. There is another form far more insidious. Another form in which we, or at least me, willingly participate. I am talking about the monoculture of our marketplace.
A month ago, I relaxed in the Napa Valley, just north of San Francisco. For all intents and purposes, it is still "country" there. Vineyards and undisturbed grassland stretch across the horizon. Cows nibble in the pastures. The sky opens up above you, peppered with soaring hawks and fluttering robins.
The town where I stayed was small. It's main street is comfortingly called "Main Street" and is dotted with a locally owned coffee shop, a mom and pop deli, a single barber - complete with striped barber pole, a family owned bakery, and a host of other unique, non-franchised stores. There is no Home Depot here. You won't find a Starbucks, a WalMart, or an Outback Steakhouse. For the most part, the people who own and work in those storefronts live in town. They know each other, sit on the PTA together,and play Bocce ball together.
At the coffee shop, the coffee is still delicious. The talk amongst neighbors gathered there even better. It is set in a roomy, windowed building overlooking the park and local ice cream store. They serve bagels, muffins, scones - the usual fare but it won't taste exactly the same as the scone that you had at the Starbucks near your house, or the Starbucks at the mall, or the one near Burger King or the one inside your Lucky's. No. These scones, this cup of coffee taste like this particular place.
I reveled in the small town feel. I enjoyed the food and drink that was just a little different than anything else I'd eaten or drank before. I welcomed the discovery of each storefront - who knew what was inside, what they offered, what advice they could provide.
Leaving the country behind, we gradually encountered more and more recognizable signs. A Target here. An Office Max there. Just before reaching the highway, on land once occupied by vineyards, cows or wilderness, slouched an enormous strip mall. WalMart loomed above the other buildings occupied by Starbucks, Bank of America, Barnes and Noble, Jamba Juice, AT&T Cellular - a host of household names plunked down in the middle of wine country. I felt both nauseous and at home.
Have you had that experience before? No matter where you go in this country or even abroad, it's like you never left home. There is Starbucks coffee to quench your thrist, a McDonald's to satisfy your craving. Every place looks the same. There is no adventure, nothing new and undiscovered, on global main street.
So, while I'm doing my part to fight monoculture in my kitchen, I need also to consider monoculture in the downtown. As the authors of Affluenza point out, "a franchise dollar is electronically transferred to corporate headquarters, while a dollar spent at the local hardware stays put in towns or neighborhoods." Indeed, you are more likely to find locally made food and products at a mom and pop store than a chain store. Moreover, local businesses give more to charity than big box stores as well as provide interest, local character and that "personal touch." Biodiveristy is as important in the marketplace as in the field as in nature.
I'm not advocating an all out spending spree at local businesses. After all, I am trimming the fat. I am pledging, though, that the next time I need a new garden tool or a cup of green tea, I'll look local.