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Plastic in farming poses risk to food safety

CIEH calls for decisive action following UN report into the ‘disastrous’ use of plastics across the agricultural sector
20 January 2022 , By Steve Smethurst

Soils contain more microplastic pollution than oceans, building up in food chains and presenting risks to human health, highlighting the “urgent need” to better monitor the quantities of plastic products used.

The “disastrous” way in which plastic is used in farming across the world is threatening food safety and potentially human health, according to a report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Assessment of agricultural plastics and their sustainability: a call for action, explains that soils contain far more microplastic pollution than oceans and that there is “irrefutable” evidence of the need for better management of the millions of tonnes of plastics used in the food and farming system each year.

Agricultural plastics include plastic greenhouse films to protect and enhance plant growth, mulching films to reduce weed growth and the need for pesticides, polymer-coated controlled-release fertilisers and silage films that lengthen the lifespan of fodder. Plastic tree guards are also used extensively in plantations.

The FAO says that the range of benefits plastics offer is not in doubt. However, they pose a serious risk to human and ecosystem health when they are damaged, degraded or discarded in the environment. The report says it is likely that microplastics present (as yet unquantified) risks to human health.

The global demand for greenhouse, mulching and sileage films is likely to increase by 50% from 6.1 million tonnes in 2018 to 9.5 million tonnes in 2030.

Data suggests that only small fractions of agricultural plastics are collected and recycled, predominantly in developed economies. Evidence suggests that it is mostly burned, buried or landfilled. Burning leads to toxic emissions including polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins and furans, both persistent organic pollutants. The agricultural plastics industry has forecast that the global demand for greenhouse, mulching and sileage films is likely to increase by 50% from 6.1 million tonnes in 2018 to 9.5 million tonnes in 2030.

Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director General at the FAO, said: “Most agricultural plastic products are single use and [when] degrading into microplastics, they can transfer and accumulate in food chains, threatening food security, food safety and, potentially, human health.”

She said that the FAO report filled a substantial gap in scientific research and provided “irrefutable” evidence to support action towards the better management of plastics in agri-food systems.

“As the demand for agricultural plastics continues to grow, there is an urgent need to better monitor the quantities of plastic products used. Promoting circular approaches is essential, through prevention, reduction, reuse and recycling,” she said.

Kate Thompson, CIEH Director said that while there is no doubt that plastic has transformed how we farm, “this report is affirmation that for the sake of our planet and our health, decisive action is needed to reduce the footprint of plastic in agriculture and replace it with biodegradable alternatives.”

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