Plastics Use in Farming Threatens Food Safety and Human Health, FAO Warns

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Association (FAO) published a report this week addressing how the current use of plastics in agriculture threatens food safety and  human health.

In recent years the impact of plastics – particularly microplastics – on the health of oceans has stimulated increased concern. The FAO report,  Assessment of agricultural plastics and their sustainability: A call for action, argues that the use of plastics in agriculture poses an even greater threat to food security, people’s health, and the environment.

The use of plastics has become ubiquitous in agriculture since their introduction in the 1950s. Per the FAO’s statement launching the report:

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.

Demand for plastics in agriculture is only expected to increase. The FAO predicts that global demand for greenhouse, mulching ,and silage films will increase by 50 percent, from 6.1 million tonnes in 2018 to 9.5 million tonnes in 2030.

In ‘Disastrous’ plastic use in farming threatens food safety – UN, the Guardian emphasized the connection  between the use of plastics and the presence of microplastics in soils:

“The report serves as a loud call for decisive action to curb the disastrous use of plastics across the agricultural sectors,” said Maria Helena Semedo, deputy director general at the FAO.

“Soils are one of the main receptors of agricultural plastics and are known to contain larger quantities of microplastics than oceans,” she said. “Microplastics can accumulate in food chains, threatening food security, food safety and potentially human health.”
Global soils are the source of all life on land but the FAO warned in December 2020 that their future looked “bleak” without action to halt degradation. Microplastic pollution is also a global problem, pervading the planet from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest ocean trenches.

Farmers swathe their land with plastics worldwide, while not comprehending the longer-term costs of such practices.  Per the FAO statement:

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 percent 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.

Microplastics (plastics less than 5 mm 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 percent of global agricultural activities take place on land, there is an obvious need for further investigation in this area. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

I’ll say.

The Guardian amplified these concerns:

Prof Jonathan Leake, at the University of Sheffield in the UK and a panel member of the UK Sustainable Soils Alliance, said: “Plastic pollution of agricultural soils is a pervasive, persistent problem that threatens soil health throughout much of the world.”

He said the impact of plastic was poorly understood, although adverse effects had been seen on earthworms, which played a crucial role in keeping soils and crops healthy.

“We are currently adding large amounts of these unnatural materials into agricultural soils without understanding their long-term effects,” he said. “In the UK the problems are especially serious because of our applications of large amounts of plastic-contaminated sewage sludges and composts. We need to remove the plastics [from these] before they are added to land, as it is impossible to remove them afterwards.”

What Is to  Be Done

The FAO cannot conceive of a system of agricultural production that doesn’t rely heavily on the use of plastics. Per its summary statement:

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

I find it increasingly depressing to read reports such as these, whether they be issued by governments, public interest groups, or multilateral entities. These reports often well explain some dire threats to human health or survival. And then when it comes to recommendations for action, shy away from any solutions adequate to addressing the scale of the problem the well-meaning but defined. Why bother laying out the problem only to put forth toothless recommendations, in the form of soothing pablum.

The FAO report conforms to this familiar pattern, and per the summary statement:

…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 fertilizers 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 micro- and nanoplastics.[Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

That’ll show ‘em!


“FAO will continue to play an important role in dealing with the issue of agricultural plastics holistically within the context of food security, nutrition, food safety, biodiversity and sustainable agriculture,” Semedo said.

Whatever that may mean.

As inadequate as the FAO’s solutions may be to addressing the scale of the problem, Ecowatch in ‘Disastrous’ Use of Plastics in Agriculture Threatens Soil and Human Health, UN Report Warns, quoted approvingly the recommendation of an expert who believed that innovation might save the day:

Innovation is also a possible solution, Kristina Thygesen, a senior expert at GRID Arendal who is collaborating with UNEP on agricultural plastics, said.

“Right now, a farmer might use plastic to control weeds, but maybe a small machine could be developed that can recognize weeds and remove them,” she said in the [UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Global Partnership for Nutrient Management]statement. “We live in a high-tech world, and we can find solutions if we really want to. We need to develop a new generation of agricultural technology.”

The innovation fairy is is about as effective a response to this plastics crisis as her sister, the recycling fairy, and as equally likely to rescue us from our plastics folly.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Many years ago in France I saw how they laid very long sheets of black plastic over strawberries to help them grow better. And when it came time to harvest those strawberries, they were ripped to the side and I think that they were then burnt. And it seems this practice is still going on decades later- (20:16 mins)

    1. Anthony Stegman

      Plastic is also used that way in the United States. Vast fields are covered in plastic. Driving by these fields one can be blinded by the reflected sunlight.

  2. carl h

    So the big consumers here are the casing for the giant marshmallow rolls you see in fields, plastic sheeting for weed control on intensive bedrows, and all manner of stuff for greenhouses that’s disposable for pathogen control including hoophouse covers.

    I don’t see new ‘biodegradable’ plastics as filling the gap for silage bales, something of sufficient strength would still require an industrial digestor to break down. Maybe somebody can create a reusable rig of some sort, but a more feasible outcome would be going back to bales that don’t require a Bobcat to move around.

    Weed control, I could see moving to a material that is truly biodegradable after a season. I dunno, waxed cardboard? Do your thing, materials scientists. Robot weed control is probably coming but will probably encourage consolidation to large corporations. Imagine the John Deere right to repair controversy, but without having an old open license to target.

    For greenhouses… glassware and autoclaves? This one’s very thorny.

    1. rjs

      i lay down cheap one sided corrugated between my tomato rows and it works fine; prevents soil borne disease, stops weed growth, and is gone by the next spring….i also used the large sheets of brown wrapping paper that Amazon uses for packing elsewhere in the garden with the same results, so i’ll probably pick up a roll of that next year…

      you can buy similar biodegradable products from garden centers and catalogs, but you’ll pay through the nose…

  3. caucus99percenter

    In the essay’s opening words, “United States” should presumably read “United Nations”.

  4. Bruce F

    I’m an organic row crop farmer, 300 acres of soybeans, corn, wheat, Kernza, clover, cover crops. My business depends on weed control, which I do mechanically, and through crop rotations. It is being done on larger farms than mine. My point (I think) is that its possible to do this without plastic and can be done without any more “innovation”. Whether it will be done is another thing.

    For farmers who raise organic corn and soybeans, weed control starts with crop rotation. In this video, farmers share their strategies for rotating crops to interrupt weed cycles and suppress weed growth and reproduction, through planting perennial crops like alfalfa to including cool-season, spring-seeded small grains like oats to fall-seeded small grains like winter wheat, rye or triticale.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Years ago in the UK I put together a funding proposal for research into using municipal compost as a spring weed suppressent for annual crops as a replacement for glyphosate. It never got funding, but one thing I hadn’t realised at the time is that most municipal compost is not considered suitable for organic (with EU certification anyway). Its a pity, because the research that had been done up to then indicated that it was potentially viable and would reduce soil erosion.

    2. Susan the other

      Industrialized large-scale farming is the culprit here in many ways. Although it “feeds the world,” it also poisons the world. And the bigger it gets, the more vulnerable it gets as well and is forced to use all sorts of poisons. If we changed farming back to small, organic farms – farms that are humanly manageable – on a small scale but a broad scope we would have the same harvest. Weed and pest control would be more effective because each plot would be engaged. And for pests to become resilient to anti-pest measures almost requires us to overkill – in a crazy natural logic. Like vaccines during a pandemic. We need to get rid of the giant commercial farms; scale down; do organic. And maybe live with a few weeds.


        Big Agrobusiness overfeeds the over consumer world only, about 30% of people.

        The other 70% of people depend on small farms, less than 5 acres, which means they feed the world but only receive about 10% of the compensation. Big Ag’s State Department aided marketing pushes Big Ag solutions on all countries, including the poor ones that can’t afford the hidden costs. Aggressive Big Ag is a co-player with Big Oil = Big PetroChem = plastics and chemical pollution in food and water.

        Don’t blame the farmer or rancher. This was Corporate Big Everything seduction and market forced down throats, much like the plastic we are now eating.

  5. CostcoPizza

    Is the Montreal Protocol the last time the world came together and fixed an environmental issue?

    Boggles my mind why we can’t have top scientists from all countries working together on better alternatives for plastic.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      One of the problems with agriculture is that techniques can change very rapidly according to whatever is being promoted by BigAg or the major government agencies. Quite radical changes in how agriculture is carried out can occur very rapidly, often before regulartory bodies realise whats happening. There always seems to be a significant lag before regulation catches up, and by then farmers have invested heavily in whatever plant or buildings are needed, so it can be difficult to reverse. The adoption of plastic for inducing early cropping seemed to happen almost overnight in rural areas I’m familiar with. The first time I saw it, I was thinking ‘why the hell is that field covered with plastic?’. The next year it seemed to be everywhere. Once farmers realised it made more money than the alternatives, it was adopted with great speed.

      1. Susan the other

        I’d just anticipate that over time plastic will create problems of its own – in addition to microplastic pollution. Encouraging the proliferation of various molds and parasites comes to mind. We don’t know yet exactly how, but plastic itself will create its own ecology. Plants will be coddled and pests will become the “innovators.”

  6. Starry Gordon


    However, it would also be helpful to provide more information on what, exactly, plastics are doing to and for the various forms of life mentioned. I have read that microorganisms are evolving to eat plastics; what else they will do, nobody seems to know. They have a kind of intelligence. It took them about 80 years to defeat most antibiotics.

  7. Greg

    The obvious replacement for plastic is human labour, but apparently we’re not allowed to talk about that. Per Bruce F and others comments above, there are alternatives. There always were alternatives. Farming did not suddenly appear in the 1950s.
    This is yet another problem with financialised thinking preventing the acknowledgement of obvious solutions. Labour is too “expensive” so we’re stuck with plastic uses that would have been inconceivable even twenty years ago.

  8. Dave in Austin

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

    Modern farming has to feed more than 7 billion people; there is no going back to the 1950. And recycling 1 acre plastic sheets is next to impossible. So we’re stuck with plastics.

    The question is “What kind of plastic does the least or no damage?”. And the answer, surprisingly given the huge amount of reseach on plastics, plasticizers, catalysts and intermediates, is “We don’t know”. Plastics as a class are well understood. There are institutional reasons (profit, fear of lawsuits, lobbying by farmers) why the there seems to be little research on “What kinds of plastics are safe?”; “What kinds of breakdown prodeucts are benign?” and “”What alternative plastics and substitutes are available?”

    A relatively modest investment in researching the chain of plastics (mostly lit reviews and talking with scientists) would yield some interesting info. But the environmental lobby is into “Mobilizing the masses” and “Send us your money” and industry and big government and big industry are into “Protecting the ricebowl.”

    Universities? One of the Kochs? Bill Gates? I don’t know but I suspect this could be the “Norman Borlaug” experiment of mid 21st century agriculture.

    1. drsteve0

      I can’t quite tell but suspect you’re not advocating for plastic in agriculture …’So we’re stuck with plastics..?’ My little ‘anecdatal’ experience – No. GA mountain boy retired to the gnat, mosquito and alligator (and now tegu) infested So. GA swamp, not far from where they grow them big ole sweet onions. Farmers here put out that plastic (mainly for weed control), make little cuts in it to place their sets (young plants a few weeks old started in a greenhouse to get a jump on the weather) and after harvest (say squash, cucumbers, whatever summer produce) do they pick that plastic up, surely you jest? Nah, they harrow it in which chops it up in little pieces and plant say, peanuts (most farmers here get three different crops per annum on a given tract).
      OK, peanuts get harvested and the nuts go off to Mr. Market, but the above ground detritus gets baled up into peanut hay, which is primo hay for getting your herbivores (especially cattle) thru the winter, yeah we actually do have winters here where the pasture grass dies and you have to feed say December thru March. So my next door neighbor (his house is a hop, skip and a jump, just under a mile, from mine) is a cow/calf farmer, several hundred momma cows and their babies, they even graze on my place, beats bushhoggin’.
      He puts the peanut hay out, cows eat it while trying to avoid the plastic, though they eat plenty of it and when they crap it out it’s unchanged from when they ate it, biodegradable my derrière. So the wind blows it around and it winds up blanketing my yard where the wife and I futilely rake it up. I ask my sodbuster buddies couldn’t you use a paper product, maybe even impregnated with nutrients that would benefit the plants, and it could be made even more permeable to rain and irrigation than plastic, not to mention biodegradability.
      They say oh yeah, that makes all kinda’ sense, but good luck finding that down at the ag supply. I’m certain some keyboard nerd can find it on the web, but my friends can’t. After all, the County Agents recommend plastic, and that’s what’s readily available. So is the farmer the villain here? I thinks it’s various levels of our gubmit who are acting as agents to expand big oil’s market. Crazy, I know.

  9. converger

    Agricultural films aren’t just about weeds.Combined with drip irrigation, they dramatically reduce water and pumping energy demand.

    There is an elegant solution: fully biodegradable plastics. The polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA/PHB) family is a genuine bioplastic, a polymer commonly produced by bacteria for energy storage. You can use pretty much anything (including compost) as a feedstock. It leaves zero polymer residue when it degrades – it’s literally bacteria food.

    PHA isn’t a perfect solution for the water bottles in your bunker, but it’s ideal as an agricultural film. The higher cost is offset by reduced operating costs – you don’t have to pull it up again every season, it doesn’t go to landfill, and it doesn’t contaminate agricultural land with toxic micro plastics.

    The biggest problem with PHA is that it’s barely on the radar. Commercial production is only now starting to ramp up, with zillions of startups but only a handful of larger producers. In a world that was actually serious about phasing out petro-plastics, it would already be the dominant solution for agricultural use cases.

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