Feb. 15th, 2020

Against Monoculture

Towards a Polyculture of Materials and Knowledge

Text © Eugenia Morpurgo

The current environmental crisis has proven to be a total one, affecting biodiversity, soil, water and air. As a reaction to it, an ever-growing quest for sustainable alternatives to oil-based materials has emerged. In the field of design - products, interiors and fashion - this translated with increasing natural and bio-fabricated options developed at an industrial level as well as at an experimental design-studio level. Among other solutions, many companies, material engineers and designers started looking into the use of industrial agriculture leftovers motivated by the necessity of not stealing land from food production. Based strongly on local bioregional economies, these researches are creating an expanding landscape of natural materials.
We have seen leather, insulation materials and hard boards developed from sunflowers in the south of France; bioplastic produced with potatoes skins in England; threads created from orange peels in Italy; plastics, fibres and paper composed of sugar cane in Brazil; plastics and leather made out of Barbary fig cladodes in Mexico; non-woven textiles obtained from pineapple leaves in the Philippines... Despite giving birth to a richer biodiversity of resources, however, these researches are only technical solutions to the use of waste materials and are not questioning the agricultural system that generated them in the first place. They are not providing real alternatives to the environmental impact of monocultural industrial farming and, in some ways, they are even contributing to confusing people regarding the difference between renewable and extractive resources.

Image © David Nance, Agricultural Research Service
Monoculture claims to be reliable in terms of outputs. Genetically identical seeds grown under controlled conditions will deliver relatively identical plants: same height, same weight, same density, similar chemical compositions. Standardised production plants can be easily processed on a large scale and produce standardised materials. Yet, this happens at the detriment of ecological and cultural biodiversity. It appears, therefore, necessary to identify alternative agricultural practices and explore their potential. Some of the questions we should think of are: How can we design regenerative production processes for traditional and innovative natural materials? What if matter production was based on nurturing and polycultural systems instead of extractive and monocultural ones? Can we create a more critical discourse around materials moving the perspective from their use to their origins?

This piece is the first chapter of a 4-part series written by Eugenia Morpurgo about her research project Syntropic Materials. Read the second part here


Terry Irwin, “Transition Design: A Proposal for a New Area of Design Practice”, Study, and Research Article in Design and Culture, Carnegie Mellon University, April 2015
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass : Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, Milkweed Editions, Sep 16, 2013
Vandana Shiva, “Women's Indigenous Knowledge and Biodiversity Conservation.” India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 1/2, 1992, pp. 205–214

About the author
Eugenia Morpurgo is an Italian designer based in Venice. Her work focuses on researching the impact that production processes have on society, with a focus on investigating and prototyping alternative scenarios and products. She works through self-initiated projects and commissioned work from companies, cultural institutions, universities and fablabs. www.eumo.it / @eugeniamorp


Plant Fever is a project curated by d-o-t-s and produced by the Belgian museum CID Grand-Hornu. Visual identity by Matthieu Visentin. Exhibition scenography by Benoît Deneufbourg