Brain Challenge no. 3

Feeding the world: Are you up to the challenge?

Since 1959 land devoted to farming has barely increased even though the world population has doubled at the same time. Arable land is being lost to non-agricultural uses. A viable solution would be to exploit the 90% of potential land available in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Technologies already exist that allow crop production in deserted areas. It is also important to look into solutions to preserve food from harvest up to consumption using the most appropriate packaging materials.

Challenge: Wanna be a hero and save the world population from starvation? Come up with bright ideas e.g. to turn deserts into arable land or to preserve food for a very long period.

Supporting information: Making Magic in the Fields - Extending the Growing Season to Increase Crop Production

Have you ever wanted your holiday to last longer? That’s how many farmers feel about their growing season. They wish that their seasons could be extended to enable them to produce more crops and better quality output.

And in many parts of the world, farmers are successfully extending their seasons thanks to continuously improving agriculture materials, machines and technology. Increased crop production and improved harvesting is even helping to battle malnutrition and starvation in some developing countries. Simply put, more arable land means more food on the table.

Plasticulture Solutions

Both large and small farmers rely on plastics to improve crop production. “Plasticulture” is a term that broadly describes the many uses of plastics in farming.

For example, in the Asia-Pacific region, where many small-scale growers have less than one hectare of land for their crops, there is an increasing interest in materials and technology that make agriculture more intensive. One of the leading solutions is the use of simple plastics structures that protect the crops. Not only do they help growers produce more crops each year with higher yields, but vegetables grown under structures are usually of better quality than those grown in an open field

Here are a few “plasticulture” applications that are helping make lands more fruitful:

  • Plastics sheeting: This is a technique where plastics sheeting covers a section of land either partially or totally. The sheeting protects the soil and fertilisers from the outside world (wind, rain, etc.). It is also better for the crop itself because the sheeting improves irrigation, keeps away weeds and keeps the produce cleaner.
  • Plastics mulch: In sheet form, plastic mulch helps conserve water and suppress weeds.  Using plastic mulching can also mean that the farmer relies on fewer pesticides.
  • Biodegradable mulch: Ploughing-in mulching films after use (instead of collecting them from the field, cleaning off the soil and returning them for recycling), is practical and can help save costs.
  • Tunnels: Constructing plastics tunnels above the crops helps the produce grow faster and protects the crops from bad weather. 
  • Hoophouses and greenhouses: Greenhouses permit control of growing conditions from the start and contribute to quicker growth of the crops. The temperature in a greenhouse is generally hotter than outside temperatures. Like tunnels, hoophouses and greenhouses also offer protection from bad weather.

Are “plasticulture” materials recyclable?

One consideration that farmers must weigh is the recyclability of the materials used in their fields. Recycling means moving plastics from the agricultural waste stream back into the manufacturing process. To make recycling a reality, the farming community must have a system or infrastructure in place. Plastics used in agriculture can be recycled through:

  • Mechanical recycling - for agriculture materials that are still in relatively good condition
  • Incineration/ Energy Recovery Processes - because plastic has a high calorific value (i.e. polyethylene films from greenhouses) this can be an excellent option in many communities.

Food Packaging and Preservation

What’s another way that plastics solutions are helping reduce hunger and make food more available? Ever-innovative food packaging.

Compared to other food packaging options, plastic is lightweight and unbreakable, and it has become an extremely common material for use in packaging. Because of its lightweight properties, the use of plastics enables transport of food over longer distances. Most plastics used in food packaging are heat resistant so that they can go through high-temperature sterilisation processes, which also maximises the ability to transport food to remote regions. Plastics can be made in a wide variety of shapes, including bottles, jars, trays, and tubs, as well as thin films that are used as bags and wraps.

For additional ideas and information:

Plastics in the packaging industry (EN)
Bioplastics at a Glance (EN, DE)
Plasticulture (EN)
Protective Structures for Improved Crop Production in Asia (EN)
Food & Fertilizer Technology Center for the Asian and Pacific Region (EN)
Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (EN, FR)