Agriculturalists worldwide need to capitalize on the increasingly sustainable plastics being developed for farming, industry officials agreed at a conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.

This in light of the escalating food supply needs of an exploding population.

The experts spoke at the International CIPA Conference 2012: Plasticulture for a Green Planet, organized by CIPA, the International Committee for Plastics in Agriculture, the 19th such conference held every three years in a different country. With representatives from more than 54 countries, the conference took place on the grounds of the AgriTech Exhibition – the 18th International Agriculture Exhibition and Conference, going on from Tuesday through Thursday at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds.

“Here in our tiny country, most of which is desert where each drop of water counts and every little piece of fertile land matters, we have succeeded to develop a modern and profitable agriculture,” Agriculture Minister Orit Noked said.

This success, she stressed, is in large part due to the added efficiency gained by the use of plastics in irrigation systems, in greenhouses, in netting and other systems. Through such technologies, Israel has been able to “make the desert bloom” and transform it from an arid no-man’s land to a “vegetable basket,” according to Noked.

Israel’s plastic industry began to boom in kibbutzim during the 1960s, and combined with advanced agricultural technologies allowed the country to become a world leader in desert crop cultivation, explained Itzhak Esquira, president of CIPA for the past three years and a member of Israel’s Plants Production and Marketing Board.

“Our vision in recent years in protected agriculture is to produce year-round high quality produce based on sustainability without involving any external or fossil energy,” Esquira said.

On June 14, the world will converge on Rio De Janeiro to define what exactly sustainable development means going forward, a decision that will apply to agriculture and to many other sectors, said Dr. Kandeh Yumkella, director-general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.

“It is obvious that we cannot continue to produce and consume products the way we have been for the past 150 years,” Yumkella said.

Last October, the global population reached 7 billion, and in another 40 years, it will jump an additional 2.5 billion. In only 20 years, about 3 billion people will move into middle class, demanding more food, and by 2020 the world will need to increase its food production by 50%, according to Yumkella.

“We face a global challenge of meeting the food needs of this expanding population,” he said.

While many important plastic technologies for farming already exist in much of the world, these innovations need to reach developing countries as well, particularly farms in Africa, where the dearth of plastic packaging often leads to crops rotting in the field, according to Yumkella. In those same countries, there are often inadequate processes for recycling, so the plastics that are in use end up remaining on the ground – “everywhere,” he added.

Israeli plastic innovations that have proven successful domestically and as exports include plastic nets to protect crops against the infiltration of harmful, disease-causing insects, as well as micropackaging plastic bags for preservation of fruits and vegetables, Noked said.

“All our fields are irrigated through water flowing in plastic pipes,” she said.

Attractively colored plastic nets can be used to divert pests, such such as white flies and aphids, away from entering greenhouses, according to Dr. David Ben-Yakir, from the Agricultural Research Center at the Volcani Center.

“Optically, we can manipulate the insect and minimize their entry into the greenhouse,” Ben-Yakir said, noting that yellow often seems to be attractive to the pests.

Plastics also help conserve water, both in drip irrigation and by coating reservoirs to retain rainwater, explained Dr. Ana Dotan, president of the Israel Society for Polymers and Plastics.

“With the use of plastics, fruits and vegetables can be grown whatever the season,” she said. “Thanks to the use of plastics in agriculture, water can be saved and plants can be planted even in desert areas.”

Other important plasticulture innovations worldwide include greenhouse covers that block near-infrared rays and so reduce the temperature in greenhouses, according to Prof. Juan I. Montero, of the Institut de Recerca i Tecnologia Agroalimentària in Spain.

Also instrumental have been anti-drip films, which cause condensation to form a film on the greenhouse covers, rather than dripping down, and allow for the recovery of condensation water when placed on an incline, he said.

While these plastics are critical in the development of agriculture, they must be recycled properly, and when recycling is not possible, biodegradable plastics may increasingly be an option, said Dotan, who was recently part of a team at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan that developed a single- season biodegradable irrigation system with the Netafim company.

By using biodegradable films, as well as performing mechanical recycling to produce plastic pelts, agriculturalists will be able to prevent much of their plastic waste from accumulating, Montero said. Meanwhile, burning polyurethane in a controlled way can prove a useful energy source, with a very high heat value.

“Greenhouse production, if properly managed, is not a highly polluting process,” he said.

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