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.]
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.