Project investigates using alternatives to potentially-damaging plastic mulch in farming

Plastic Mulch
Research news

Thursday 24 May 2018

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Scientists are investigating alternatives to using potentially-damaging plastic soil mulch currently favoured by farmers and gardeners.

The team at Coventry University’s Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience are leading a major Europe-wide research project examining the use of some of the most controversial products in organic farming, including plastics, antibiotics, fertilisers containing animal products and copper.

They will be analysing how plastic mulch (made from fossil fuels) affects the soil and plants it touches, what more environmentally-friendly alternatives there are to it and the impact that these could have on land and crops.

Plastic mulch is widely used in large-scale vegetable growing, with millions of acres of farmland covered with it worldwide every year.

It’s cheap to make, but there are fears that the plastic can accumulate in the soil, as it’s expensive and difficult to remove it, and that this can lead to environmental problems.

It may also affect biodiversity and contaminate plants, soil and water with plastic micro-particles or molecules from the degradation of fossil-fuel based products.

The Coventry team hope the results of their research will help to phase-out all fossil-fuel derived plastic in European agriculture and replace them with renewable and fully degradable alternatives.

The research project, called Organic-PLUS, will also investigate a series of other contentious subjects in organic and conventional farming.

These include: 

  • Minimising and phasing-out antibiotics use in livestock farming.
  • Looking at the current use and future potential for vegan fertilisers, based on plants (e.g. beans), rather than using animal by-products.
  • Minimising and phasing-out the use of copper in organic farming, especially in Mediterranean countries and greenhouse crops.
  • Phasing out peat use in growing media across Europe.

The project will also involve a large online survey, to be launched in the next couple of months, aiming to ask 15,000 people in seven countries what issues they are concerned about within organic farming.

The results will influence how the project develops and if it expands its scope to include other topics of public concern.

The four-year 4.1 million Euro project, funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 scheme, involves 24 different partners from 12 different countries across Europe including UK, Poland, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Turkey and Norway.

Dr Ulrich Schmutz, who is leading the project for CAWR, said:

All the topics examined in this project are really contentious issues that are of huge public concern. They affect how our land is farmed, how our food is grown, what we eat and also have wide-ranging consequences on the environment and our health.

We have heard a lot about the devastating impact plastic is having on our oceans and their wildlife, but there’s also a potentially massive problem with plastic building up in soils too.

It’s vitally important we understand more about how dangerous it can be and find safe and suitable alternatives. These microplastics in soils may seem very small scale, but the accumulation over time and across the whole of Europe and the inland seas around it can be very large. The fear is that micro-plastic or molecules of plastic degradation get into the soil, ground water, animal feed and even human consumption. That is something we need to research in detail and invest in food and products which lead the way out of this.