Plasticulture is becoming a threat to the environment. 

Did you say plasticulture? Never heard of it.

You are not alone. It’s simply not in the public conscience. Here’s a crash course.

Plasticulture is the ever expanding use of plastics, specifically in agriculture. And damage created from agricultural plastic use might be even more devastating than more well-reported ocean plastic pollution.

The amount of ag plastic is truly staggering. A Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations report says that in 2019 worldwide usage totaled just under 50 million tons including 37.7 million in packaging, 12.5 million in production, and 10.2 million in livestock and crop production.

Plasticulture  is everywhere — in drip irrigation systems, films for greenhouses and soil mulching, containers for agrichemicals, coatings on seeds … the list is endless.

And the agricultural plastic footprint is expanding at alarming rates. The France-based Comite International Plastiques en Agriculture project agricultural films plastics usage will grow by 50% before the end of the decade.

What’s really distressing is plasticulture’s growth has been willy-nilly. Environmental scientists are just now beginning to come to grips with potential future negative impacts on soil.

The United Nations Environment Programme’s 29th annual Foresight Brief makes clear the research gap:

“Plastics are used extensively in farming, from plastic coated seeds to mulch film. They also make their way into biosolid fertilizer which is spread on fields. All these products have helped increase crop yields, but there is increasing evidence that degraded plastics are contaminating the soil and impacting biodiversity and soil health. This can lead to reduced productivity and could threaten long-term food security. As a finite resource which is under pressure, agricultural soil needs to be safeguarded from further degradation. … However, currently the fate of microplastics in soil is poorly understood.”

Poorly understood? It’s generally known among ag plastic gurus that over time bigger bits of plastic break down into smaller bits — macroplastics to microplastics — which then seep into the soil, which limits dirt’s capacity to hold water.

You don’t have to go farther than that sagging house plant tucked away in the corner of your living room to know without water what you get is an unhappy fern with reduced root growth and nutrient uptake.

What’s far less understood is the longer term implications of piling year after year of microplastics into the soil. What about public health? Food quality and food security? How about impact on the soil’s carbon capture cycle? What about the potential to harbor pathogens and concentrate pollutants and agrichemicals? And biodegradable plastic? Same information gap. Right now there are more questions than answers.

Connecting the dots between plasticulture and long-term agricultural harm won’t be easy. Existing records on plastic material flows worldwide are sketchy at best. There needs to be a new, concentrated testing and risk assessment approach on soil ecosystems. But it’s up to researchers to find answers and inform the public about plasticulture risks to our food supply.

Then there’s all of us. Huge amounts of plasticulture come from food packaging. When I was a boy, milk and soda pop came in refillable glass bottles. In those days, most everything at the grocery store was wrapped in paper. Today you would be hard pressed to go grocery shopping without returning home with a cart load of plastic.

We all must change our attitudes toward plastic. It will be unbelievably difficult. As a nation, we don’t truly understand the lurking dangers – especially when it comes to agriculture. Recycling hasn’t been the answer.

Last March, representatives from 175 nations agreed to develop a global treaty that would rein in plastic pollution. Later this year, negotiators will meet to produce a working document that would ratchet up recycling and find sustainable throttles on plastic production. Hopefully, plasticulture will be on their radar. I kind of doubt it, and that would be unfortunate.

I do know this: Doing nothing globally about plasticulture is not tenable.

Type of work:

Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

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David Dickey always wanted to be a journalist. After serving tours in the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy, Dickey enrolled at Rock Valley Junior College in Rockford, Ill., where he was first news editor...

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