Rising use of plastics in farm sector bad for crop, land: WOTR

The Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), a Pune-based non-profit group, has warned the government ab­o­ut rising use of plastics in agriculture. It has suggested alternative natural materials obtained from plants, anim­als, and new generation bio­polymers, which are plastics made from biomass sources.

While lauding the gover­nment’s efforts banning single use plastics and enforcing penalties for non-compliance, WOTR has urged action that goes beyond bans and prevent contamination of soil, water, food and air.

“Use of plastics in agricu­lture is rising with application in pond liners, green houses, micro-irrigation and plastic mulching,” WOTR said in a World Environment Day statement on Tuesday. It raised concerns about applic­ation in mulching as it cou­ld damage soil quality, alter microbial communities and potentially introduce carcinogenic into food chain.

WOTR also warned that crops like cotton grown in plastic contaminated soils could lose commercial value due to lint contamination.The alternatives exist. The government needs to go beyond just ban on single use plastic bags and bottles and look at its growing use in agriculture and food production, it said.

Plasticulture (the use of plastics in agriculture), is extensively utilised in lining of farm ponds, greenhouse cultivation of crops, micro-irrigation (drips and sprinklers) and plastic mulching across the country. “Plastic mulch in particular has been where there is a rapidly increasing demand and should be of co­ncern to us as it as a potential source of entry into our food system,” Crispino Lobo, managing trustee at WOTR told Financial Chronicle.

The plastic film residue can lower soil porosity and air circulation, change micr­obial communities, and potentially lower farmland fertility and enter into the food chain. “Fragments of plastic film have been shown to release potentially carcinoge­nic phthalate acid esters into the soil, where they can be taken up in vegetables and pose a human health risk when the food is consu­med,” said Arjuna Srinidhi, senior researcher and policy analyst at WOTR.

“Film fragments left in fi­e­lds can also accumulate pe­s­ticides and other toxins applied to crops,” he said, add­ing this is a special risk for sheep, goats and other livestock grazing on crop stalks because of their potential to ingest plastic material or the chemicals that leach from it.

Srinidhi also warned wh­en cotton crops are grown in plastic-contaminated soil, it raises risk of contamination. “When it happens, the qu­a­lity of the output is downgr­aded because traces of plastic can interfere with the col­ouring process. It could decrease the commercial value of crops, increase consumer anxiety and cause huge losses in traditional cotton growing areas,” he said.

Another issue with regard to the plastic mulch (films) is that it is not easy to recover and reuse them. “Altho­ugh films in US, Europe and even India are thicker than 15-20 microns, Chinese fi­l­ms are less than half the thi­ckness of those films and go down to 8 microns. Th­at th­i­n­ness makes it less robust and more difficult to recover after use,” Srinidhi said.

Natural materials obtained from plants and animals, and newer generation biopolymers, which are plastics, made from biomass sources are the best alternatives, Lobo stressed.

Michael Gonsalves