Agriculture Plastic Residues Are Poisoning Soils, Food Systems & Threatening Human Health, Says FAO 


Agricultural plastics pose large and growing threat to soils, food safety and human health – and need to be better managed as well as replaced with more sustainable alternatives, as well as more recycling and reuse of plastics consumed. 

These are the findings of a new report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, “Assessment of agricultural plastics and their sustainability: A call for action”, released this week.  

The agriculture sector used a massive 12.5 million tonnes of plastic in plant and animal production and 37.3 million tonnes in food packaging in 2019, according to the report.

But only a small fraction of those plastics are collected and recycled – with potentially toxic microplastics absorbed in soils, accumulating in food chains, and eventually consumed by animals and people.

“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 agricultural sectors,” writes FAO Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo, in the report, which is perhas the most high-profile call to action on the issue to date.

“Soils are one of the main receptors of agricultural plastics and are known to contain larger quantities of microplastics than oceans,” she also said in a Foreword to the report. “Microplastics can accumulate in food chains, threatening food security, food safety and potentially human health…..As the demand for agricutlturel plastics contiunues to grow, there is an urgent need to better monitor the quantities of plastic producs used and that leak into the enviornment from agriculture.

In terms of human health, plastics are increasingly ingested by fish, livestock and wildlife – and then consumed by people. That is leading to a gradual increase in the concentrations of microplastic particles, as well as associated toxins and pathogens, in human populations in many parts of the world – which may then increase peoples’ risks to cancers, reproductive and endocrine disorders and a wide range of other chronic diseases.

Torn single-use plastics abandoned, and buried into fields worldwide are leading to the accumulation of microplastics in soils

Growing demand

Today, however, demand for single use agro- plastics is soaring – and there is little awareness of risks or monitoring of actual impacts on soils, animals or people.

The agricultural plastics industry forecasts, for instance, that growing global demand will lead to a 50% increase in the use of plastics simply for greenhouses, mulching, and silage films by 2030 – from 6.1 million tonnes in 2018 to 9.5 million tonnes. 

Crop production and livestock sectors are the largest plastics users, accounting for 10 million tonnes per year collectively. This is followed by fisheries and aquaculture with 2.1 million tonnes, and forestry with 0.2 million tonnes. 

Plastics in surface soil reduce crop yields

Ease of manufacture, physical properties and affordability make plastics the material of choice for many agricultural products. 

And yet while their use is largely intended to increase short-term fruit and vegetable yields, e.g. by protecting plants from extreme heat or cold, over time, the opposite has been found to be true.

The accumulation in surface soils of mulching film plastics  – a major category of agricultural plastic by mass – is linked to reduced yield.  

The report proposes a number of alternatives and interventions to reduce plastic use – and prolong the life cycle of plastics that are used, including:

  • eliminating use of the most toxic plastic products altogether
  • substituting plastic products with natural or biodegradable alternatives;
  • promoting reusable plastic productss. 

These recommendations are based on the 6R model – Refuse, Redesign, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Recover.

Absence of international policies on agro-plastics use

Currently, no international policy addresses all aspects of plastic use in agricultural food chains. 

At the international level, the report recommends a two-pronged approach: 

  1. Developing a comprehensive voluntary code of conduct to cover all aspects of plastics throughout agri-food value chains.
  2. Mainstreaming specific aspects of the life cycle of agricultural plastics in existing international conventions, where appropriate. 

Semedo notes that the FAO will continue to play an integral role in the issue of agricultural plastics.

“Tackling agricultural plastic pollution is paramount to achieving more efficient, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable agri-food systems for better production, better nutrition, and a better life, leaving no one behind.” 

See also the 2019 report on Plastics and Health, by the Center for International Environmental Law, in association with a coalition of non-profit groups.

Report Details Health Crisis Hidden In Plastics Lifecycle



Image Credits: @Antoine Giret/ Unsplash, FAO – Assessment of Agricultural Plastics and their Sustainability – A Call to Action , FAO – Assessment of Agricultural Plastics and their Sustainability – A Call to Action.

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