The world is much aware of plastic pollution of the water bodies, beaches and oceans. But a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organisation mentions that the land used to grow food is contaminated with far larger quantities of plastic pollution, posing 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 report of its kind by FAO.
As per the FAO data, agricultural value chains use 12.5 million tonnes of plastic products every year. A further 37.3 million tonnes is 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. The FAO data showed that Asia was the largest user of plastics in agricultural production, accounting for almost half of global usage.
DEMAND TO INCREASE
The FAO report states demand for plastic in agriculture is set to increase in the absence of viable alternatives. It said 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. The report pointed out that microplastics are the major concern.
In the forward to the report, FAO Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo said that the report was a loud call to coordinated and decisive action to facilitate good management practices and curb the disastrous use of plastics across the agricultural sectors.
GOOD ABOUT PLASTICS
The report mentions that plastics have become a widespread phenomenon and one cannot avoid it all of a sudden. The FAO stated that plastic products greatly helped productivity in agriculture. For example, it pointed out that Mulch Films are used to cover the soil to reduce weed growth. Moreover, coatings on fertilizers, 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. Moreover, plastic products help reduce food losses and waste, and maintain its nutritional qualities throughout a myriad of value chains, thereby improving food security and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
BAD ABOUT PLASTICS
The report states that plastics also 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. “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,” the report said.
Apart from this, the report points out the dangers of 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. The FAO stressed that all the studies with respect to plastics are restricted to oceans and other water bodies and no elaborate research has been done on its impact on agriculture. FAO experts found that agricultural soils are thought to receive for greater quantities of microplastics. There is an urgent need for further investigation in this area since 93 percent of global agricultural activities take place on land.
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 FAO 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.