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Plastics in Agriculture How Can the Use of Plastics in Agriculture Become More Sustainable?

Source: University of Vienna Reading Time: 3 min |

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A recent study led by researchers at the University of Vienna delves into the complex role of plastics in modern agriculture. While acknowledging the material's benefits in conserving resources and improving crop yields, the study also highlights the environmental and health risks, such as soil fertility decline and potential toxic contamination of the food chain.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), over twelve million tonnes of plastic are integrated into the agricultural process every year.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), over twelve million tonnes of plastic are integrated into the agricultural process every year.
(Source: frei lizenziert / Pixabay)

Plastics are an integral part of modern agriculture. Twelve million tons are used every year. But what about the environmental consequences? An international team of authors led by Thilo Hofmann from the Department of Environmental Geosciences at the University of Vienna addresses this question in a recent study published in Nature Communication Earth and Environment. The research highlights the benefits and risks of using plastics in agriculture and identifies solutions to ensure their sustainable use.

Once hailed as a symbol of modern innovation, plastic is now both a blessing and a curse of our time. Plastic is ubiquitous in every sector, and agriculture is no different. Responsible for nearly a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and a major drain on the planet's resources, modern agriculture is inextricably linked to plastic. The new study from the University of Vienna was conducted by Thilo Hofmann, environmental psychologist Sabine Pahl and environmental scientist Thorsten Hüffer, along with international co-authors. Their research shows that plastic plays a multifaceted role: from mulch films that protect crops to water-saving irrigation systems, plastic is deeply embedded in our food production.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than twelve million tons of plastic are integrated into the agricultural process every year. From securing crops with staples to protecting them with netting, plastic has found its place in all aspects of agricultural production. The use of plastic in agriculture undeniably conserves important resources. Leading the way is mulch film, which accounts for approximately 50 % of all agricultural plastics. Mulch films not only control weeds and pests, but also conserve soil moisture, regulate temperature, and improve nutrient uptake, helping to reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture. In China, not using mulch would require an additional 3.9 million hectares of farmland to maintain the status quo of production.

The Dark Side of Plastic in Our Food Systems

But there are downsides to the intensive use of plastics in agriculture: impaired soil fertility, dwindling crop yields, and the chilling prospect of toxic additives seeping into our food chain. Conventional plastics persist in the environment, with residues accumulating in our soils. Tiny plastic particles can be taken up by plants. Although research on the uptake of nanoplastics is still in its infancy, preliminary data suggests that plastics may enter our food chain through agriculture.

To address the challenges of plastics in agriculture, a strategy that promotes the rational use of plastics, their efficient collection after use, and the innovation of state-of-the-art recycling methods is at the forefront, say the authors of the new study. “In cases where plastics remain in the environment, their design should ensure complete biodegradation. In addition, it is crucial that toxic plastic additives are replaced by safer alternatives,” explains Thilo Hofmann.

While bio-based materials are an enticing alternative, they are not without caveats. A hasty switch to such materials without adequate consideration of their life cycle could inadvertently put more strain on our ecosystems and food networks.

The measures proposed by the authors are in line with global initiatives such as the UN Plastics Convention (UNEA 5.2). Adopting these practices will promote a more sustainable use of plastics in agriculture, the scientists say. While a complete replacement of plastics is not feasible at this time, the judicious use of alternatives with minimal environmental impact appears to be a promising way forward. With mandatory monitoring, technological advances and educational initiatives, it should be possible to reduce our reliance on plastic and its negative environmental impact.


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