Vienna: Without plastics, modern agriculture is unimaginable. There are 12 million tonnes utilised annually. However, what about the effects on the environment? In a recent study published in Nature Communication Earth and Environment, an international group of writers lead by Thilo Hofmann from the Division of Environmental Geosciences at the University of Vienna addresses this issue. The study details the advantages and dangers of plastic use in agriculture and suggests strategies to assure its sustainable use.
Once celebrated 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. Modern agriculture, which is responsible for almost a third of global greenhouse gas emissions and is a major drain on the planet’s resources, 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 reveals that plastic plays a multi-faceted role: from mulch films that protect plants to water-saving irrigation systems, plastic is deeply embedded in our food production.
Plastic enhances yields while shrinking our ecological footprint
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), over 12 million tonnes of plastic are integrated into the agricultural process every year. From securing plants with clamps to protecting them with nets, plastic has found its place in all areas of agricultural production. The use of plastic in agriculture undeniably conserves important resources. The front-runner is mulch films, which account for about 50 per cent of all agricultural plastics. Mulch films not only control weeds and pests, but also preserve soil moisture, regulate temperature, and improve nutrient uptake, thus helping to reduce the ecological footprint of agriculture. In China, not using mulch films would require an additional 3.9 million hectares of cropland to maintain the status quo of production.
The dark side of plastic in our food systems
But the intensive use of plastics in agriculture also has downsides: 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 ingested by plants. Although research into the uptake of nanoplastics is still in its infancy, preliminary data suggests that plastics can enter our food chain through agriculture.
Our transition from plastic should be slow and calculated
In navigating the challenges of plastic in agriculture, the spotlight falls on a strategy that champions the rational use of plastic, its efficient collection post-use, and the innovation of cutting-edge recycling methods, the authors state in the new study. “In cases where plastics remain in the environment, their design should ensure complete biodegradation. Furthermore, it is crucial that toxic plastic additives are replaced by safer alternatives,” explains Thilo Hofmann
While bio-based materials present a tempting alternative, they are not without caveats. A rushed pivot to such materials without adequate consideration of their life cycles could unintentionally put more strain on our ecosystems and food networks.
The measures proposed by the authors are in line with global initiatives like the UN Plastics Treaty (UNEA 5.2). Adopting these practices will foster more sustainable use of plastics in agriculture, according to the scientists. While a complete replacement of plastics is untenable at present, the judicious use of alternatives with minimal environmental impact seems to be a promising way forward. With mandatory monitoring, technological advancement and educational initiatives, reducing our reliance on plastic and its adverse environmental impacts should be possible.
(This story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.