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Plastics in agrifood systems

A new report by FAO suggests that plastic pollution is pervasive in our agricultural soils
Plastics in agrifood systems

Main image: ©FAO/Cristina Aldehuela

Images of plastic refuse littering our beaches and oceans always get a lot of attention, but a new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) suggests that the land we use to grow our food is contaminated with far larger quantities of plastic pollution.

This, it says, poses an even greater threat to food security, people’s health and the environment.

The report – Assessment of agricultural plastics and their sustainability: a call for action – is the first global report of its kind by FAO and contains some startling numbers.

Treating soil like dirt

According to data collated by the agency’s experts, agricultural value chains each year use 12.5 million tonnes of plastic products. A further 37.3 million tonnes are used in food packaging.

The crop production and livestock sectors were found to be the largest users, accounting for 10.2 million tonnes per year collectively, followed by fisheries and aquaculture (with 2.1 million tonnes) and forestry (with 0.2 million tonnes).

Asia was estimated to be the largest user of plastics in agricultural production, accounting for almost half of global usage.

In the absence of viable alternatives, demand for plastic in agriculture is only set to increase.

According to industry experts, for instance, global demand for greenhouse, mulching and silage films will increase by 50%, from 6.1 million tonnes in 2018 to 9.5 million tonnes in 2030.

‘This report gives a stark warning that we cannot overlook the impact of plastic in our soils. They are the lifeblood of our planet, providing 95 percent of our food supply, yet they are 23 times more polluted with plastic than our oceans.

‘In one handful of soil, there are billions of living organisms; more than humans have ever lived on our planet. And how do we treat this vibrant, rich, energy-giving; nutrient-growing; carbon-sinking soil – we treat it like dirt.
 
‘The agricultural industry is a huge contributor to this, using more than 12 million tonnes of plastic each year. Most of which is destined to pollute our soils, where it’ll leach a toxic cocktail of chemicals into the earth and nearby water sources, contaminate fruit and vegetables, and make the soils unusable. But the problem is far wider. Every day plastics from packaging, clothing, and laundry products are all part of the picture.
 
‘Simply put, plastic is killing our soils. Much talk revolves around plastic polluting the world’s oceans, but it’s crucial we stop it from desecrating our soils, which are vital to our existence.  
 
‘We call on all governments around the world to act urgently to address the issues in this report, and bring forward real action, at pace, which will stem the flow of plastic into the earth. We must not ignore these findings, the future of generations to come depends on it.’

SIAN SUTHERLAND
A Plastic Planet co-founder

Plastic’s costs and benefits

Trends like these show it’s essential to balance the costs and benefits of plastic.

Of increasing concern are microplastics, which have the potential of adversely affecting human health. While there are gaps in the data, they shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to act, FAO warned.

‘This report serves as a loud call to coordinated and decisive action to facilitate good management practices and curb the disastrous use of plastics across the agricultural sectors.’

MARIA HELENA SEMEDO
FAO Deputy Director-General

The good…

Plastics have become ubiquitous since their widespread introduction in the 1950s, and it is difficult today to envisage life without them.

In agriculture, plastic products greatly help productivity. Mulch films, for instance, are used to cover the soil to reduce weed growth, the need for pesticides, fertiliser and irrigation; tunnel and greenhouse films and nets protect and boost plant growth, extend cropping seasons and increase yields; coatings on fertilisers, pesticides and seeds control the rate of release of chemicals or improve germination; tree guards protect young seedlings and saplings against damage by animals and provide a microclimate that enhances growth.

Plastic products also help reduce food losses and waste, and maintain nutritional qualities throughout myriad value chains, thereby improving food security and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

…The bad and the ugly

Unfortunately, the very properties that make plastics so useful create problems when they reach the end of their intended lives.

The diversity of polymers and additives blended into plastics make their sorting and recycling more difficult.

Being man-made, there are few microorganisms capable of degrading polymers, meaning that once in the environment, they may fragment and remain there for decades.

Of the estimated 6.3 billion tonnes of plastics produced up to 2015, almost 80% has not been disposed of properly.

Once in the natural environment, plastics can cause harm in several ways. The effects of large plastic items on marine fauna have been well documented.

However, as these plastics begin to disintegrate and degrade, their impacts begin to be exerted at the cellular level, affecting not only individual organisms but also, potentially, entire ecosystems.

Understanding microplastics

Microplastics (plastics less than 5mm in size) are thought to present specific risks to animal health, but recent studies have detected traces of microplastic particles in human faeces and placentas.

There is also evidence of mother-to-foetus transmission of much smaller nanoplastics in rats.

While most scientific research on plastics pollution has been directed at aquatic ecosystems, especially oceans, FAO experts found that agricultural soils are thought to receive far greater quantities of microplastics.

Since 93% of global agricultural activities take place on land, there is an obvious need for further investigation in this area.

‘No silver bullets’

The absence of viable alternatives makes it impossible for plastics to be banned. And there are no silver bullets for eliminating their drawbacks.

Instead, the report identifies several solutions based on the 6R model (refuse, redesign, reduce, reuse, recycle and recover).

Agricultural plastic products identified as having a high potential for environmental harm that should be targeted as a matter of priority include non-biodegradable polymer coated fertilisers and mulching films.

The report also recommends developing a comprehensive voluntary code of conduct to cover all aspects of plastics throughout agrifood value chains and calls for more research, especially on the health impact of microplastics and nanoplastics.

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