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2018 AFHVS presidential address

Agriculture in the Plastic Age

It’s hard to get your head around the story of plastic. The facts and figures are so staggering as to seem almost fantastical … Plastics, of course, are a great thing … And yet … we have created a plastic apocalypse.

Susan Goldberg, Editor in Chief, National Geographic (2018)


In this address I discuss agricultural plastic use and plastic pollution mitigation strategies. I focus on agricultural plastic mulches, which offer many benefits to farmers, such as weed control, better moisture retention, and increased yield. The removal and disposal of widely used polyethylene (PE) plastic mulch, however, have detrimental environmental and health impacts. Are biodegradable plastic mulches a promising alternative? Biodegradable plastic mulches ideally offer the same benefits as PE plastic mulch, but biodegrade in soil or composting environments. I describe social science research findings from a large USDA-funded project focused on the performance and adoptability of biodegradable plastic mulches for U.S. specialty crop production. I also provide agrifood scholars with ideas for future research on plastics.

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Fig. 1

(Source: Thompson et al. 2009)

Fig. 2

(Photos by J. Goldberger)


  1. For more information about our project, please see



Bisphenol A


Food and Drug Administration


National Institute of Food and Agriculture


National Organic Program




Polyethylene terephthalate


Polyvinyl chloride


Specialty Crop Research Initiative


United States Department of Agriculture


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Thank you to Marcia Ostrom, Douglas Hayes, and Susan Schexnayder for reviewing an earlier version of this presidential address. Also thank you to the Technology Adoption Working Group members, especially Katherine Dentzman, Jeremy Cowan, Chris Benedict, and Annette Wszelaki. Our research on biodegradable plastic mulches would not be possible without funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (Grant No. 2014-51181-22382).

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Correspondence to Jessica R. Goldberger.

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Goldberger, J.R. 2018 AFHVS presidential address. Agric Hum Values 35, 899–904 (2018).

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  • Agriculture
  • Plastic
  • Environment
  • Pollution
  • Biodegradable mulch