'Agriculture needs to wean itself off its dependence on single use plastic'

Richard Hackett

When you look around at the crops at the minute you can understand why old auctioneers would always say: 'If you have to sell land, sell it in May'.

 The countryside is bursting with vibrancy and colours, growth is surging ahead and even the worst fields look a picture at the minute. It's still a long way until harvest, but every field is 'ditch to ditch' with healthy crops, there are no poor or bare patches to be seen and crop potential, as far as we can say at this time of the year, looks to be excellent.

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It's when the countryside is looking its best that we can understand the delicate balance of nature and realise the impact of agriculture on the countryside.

There has been a lot of focus recently on one of the worst environmental blights on the environment - plastic.

In the agricultural sector, there are areas that we will have to improve on in this regard.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of guiding a group of German agriculturalists around the country. One of them was very impressed with our large fields of what he thought were horticultural crops covered in plastic. He wanted to know why we grew so much covered carrots.

When I pointed out that no, it wasn't carrots, but maize, that was going to be put into a pit and fed to cows, I don't think he believed me.

Why would a country with such a low overall stocking rate that brags about its ability to grow grass, cover the ground with an oil-based plastic covering for a crop to feed cows? I didn't really have an answer. It makes no sense and the sooner government policy realises this, the better.

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Another source of plastic that is also blighting our countryside is a much harder nut to crack. If we go back over the last 40 or 50 years, one of the novel innovations in Irish agriculture was the development of wrapped baled silage. This has had a hugely positive impact on Irish agriculture as anyone old enough to remember the wet summers of 1985 and 1986 will testify.

The predominant feature of these 'summers' was field after field of black hay, getting turned just in time for the next downpour to wash it again. The subsequent loss of production and mental stress caused from being unable to save winter fodder had repercussions for years for many farmers.

Baled silage provides the ability conserve quality forage in all areas of the country.

I won't say regardless of the weather, but saving forage is much less weather dependent than drying grass to conserve it. However, there is a caveat.

There are now very few ditches and drains throughout the country that don't have some plastic wrap stuck somewhere.

Yes, we have a very successful recycling scheme that farmers have really bought into, but if we are to look into the long term, we really are going to have to look to some method of conserving fodder that is not as dependent on such high levels of single use plastic.

The horticultural industry also has high plastic usage levels. Again it's not a simple issue: two grammes of plastic wrapping around a cucumber can prolong its shelf life from a few hours to many days.

Operating theatre standards

However, the continual push to sterilise our food production systems to operating theatre standards is causing oceans of plastic to be wasted in the process. Produce that is going to be boiled for 20 minutes before consumption is encased in sterile plastic bags and placed in sterile plastic crates, (that are not as reusable as they are claimed). The crates have to have plastic liners put into them for some reason; stacked crates are wrapped in plastic cling wrap on the pallet and anyone that comes within a country mile of the product also to be wrapped in hair nets, sterile booties and disposable white coats or bibs.

Plastic bags come in bundles in plastic outers. Bundles of plastic outers are wrapped in plastic pallet wrap. And finally there are the flow wrapper machines that single wrap produce into tightly sealed plastic packages.

At the end of all this, the produce looks very well, but the plastic wastage from these machines is startling. Some supermarkets have identified a marketing opportunity here and are issuing edicts to suppliers to stop plastic wrapping and move to net packaging - which is also plastic.

In the long term we will have to look at government policy to actively discourage use of single use plastic in our farming processes, encourage innovation to develop alternatives and ultimately ban the use of plastic where it simply cannot be supported by science or common sense.

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