Plastic mulching in agriculture. Trading short-term agronomic benefits for long-term soil degradation?
Authors: Zacharias Steinmetz, Claudia Wollmann, Miriam Schaefer, Christian Buchmann, Jan David a, Josephine Tröger, Katherine Muñoz, Oliver Frör, Gabriele Ellen Schaumann
Abstract: Plastic mulching has become a globally applied agricultural practice for its instant economic benefits such as higher yields, earlier harvests, improved fruit quality and increased water-use efficiency. However, knowledge of the sustainability of plastic mulching remains vague in terms of both an environmental and agronomic perspective. This review critically discusses the current understanding of the environmental impact of plastic mulch use by linking knowledge of agricultural benefits and research on the life cycle of plastic mulches with direct and indirect implications for long-term soil quality and ecosystem services. Adverse effects may arise from plastic additives, enhanced pesticide runoff and plastic residues likely to fragment into microplastics but remaining chemically intact and accumulating in soil where they can successively sorb agrochemicals. The quantification of microplastics in soil remains challenging due to the lack of appropriate analytical techniques. The cost and effort of recovering and recycling used mulching films may offset the aforementioned benefits in the long term. However, comparative and long-term agronomic assessments have not yet been conducted. Furthermore, plastic mulches have the potential to alter soil quality by shifting the edaphic biocoenosis (e.g. towards mycotoxigenic fungi), accelerate C/N metabolism eventually depleting soil organic matter stocks, increase soil water repellency and favour the release of greenhouse gases. A substantial process understanding of the interactions between the soil microclimate, water supply and biological activity under plastic mulches is still lacking but required to estimate potential risks for long-term soil quality. Currently, farmers mostly base their decision to apply plastic mulches rather on expected short-term benefits than on the consideration of long-term consequences. Future interdisciplinary research should therefore gain a deeper understanding of the incentives for farmers and public perception from both a psychological and economic perspective in order to develop new support strategies for the transition into a more environment-friendly food production.