Plastics in Agriculture Threaten Our Food Supply

Teresa Madaleno:

The amount of plastic waste in our oceans every year is expected to triple by 2040, reaching an estimated 29 million metric tons. You may have already heard that there is more plastic is our waterways than there are fish. However, have you heard much about how plastic trash is threatening our food supply?

The United Nations Agricultural Agency is starting to warn the world through its Assessment of agricultural plastics and their sustainability: a call for action report. The report claims that the land we use to grow food is polluted with even more plastics than oceans.

One of the reasons this issue hasn’t come up before is likely because we don’t see the plastic waste in soil the way we do in waterways. It may be common to see a plastic water bottle or plastic bag floating in a body of water, but soils are receptors of microplastics, many of which can’t be seen with the naked eye.

Data collected by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) shows the agricultural industry uses 12.5 million tonnes of plastic products for crop production, livestock, fisheries, and aquaculture. Asia is the largest user of plastics in agricultural production.

If you are wondering how we use plastics in food production, here’s a simple example – we use plastics to cover soil to reduce weeds or in the form of nets to protect plants. Plastics are also used to help extend growing season. The problem is that during the disintegration process, plastics seep into the soil and thus our food supply. As a result, human feces have been found to have microplastics, placentas have been found to have plastics, and fetuses have as well. The UN is calling for more scientific research since 93 percent of global agricultural activities occur on land. Currently, most of the research on plastics pollution is focused on aquatic ecosystems.

What to do about plastics in soil

The Assessment suggests several ways to attack the problem, including the 6R model (Refuse, Redesign, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Recover). The report also calls for the development of a detailed, voluntary code of conduct for plastics use throughout the agricultural process and is demanding more research be done on the health impacts of micro, as well as nanoplastics.

Microplastics contain particles with less than 5-millimeter size, whereas nanoplastics contain particles with less than 100 nanometer size. A nanometer is 1,000,000 times smaller than a millimeter.