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Breakdown: What is ‘plasticulture’ and why are there concerns about its environmental impacts

While plastics aid crop production, their widespread use by farmers has raised concerns about the environmental impacts and sustainability.
Published: May. 26, 2022 at 9:12 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - In the 1950s, a University of Kentucky horticulture professor developed the first plastic greenhouse.

Plastic greenhouses are an inexpensive and effective way to increase farm yields by extending the growing season and exerting control over temperature and lighting conditions.

The use of plastic on farms has become so common in recent decades that there is a term for it — plasticulture.

But greenhouses aren’t the only way farmers use plastic.

When draped over rows of crops, thin sheets of “plastic mulch” are often used to protect plants from pests and weeds, as well as reduce the water needed for irrigation.

By one estimate, plastic mulches cover as much as 13 percent of China’s farmland, making the...
By one estimate, plastic mulches cover as much as 13 percent of China’s farmland, making the country the largest user of agricultural plastic in the world. (Michigan State University Extension, Department of Horticulture)

While plastics aid crop production, their widespread use by farmers has raised concerns about environmental impacts and sustainability.

Plastics produce toxic air pollution when burned, and they break down into microplastics that often end up in soils and water, according to a 2021 report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The global demand for agricultural plastic is expected to swell in the coming years, increasing from 6.1 million metric tons in 2018 to 9.5 million metric tons by 2030.

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