The UN has sounded the alarm on plastics in agriculture. A new report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization described microplastic pollution in the soil as a bigger threat than in the ocean, warning of “disastrous” impacts.
From mulching films to plastic tree guards and controlled-release fertilizers coated with polymers, plastics are used for many purposes in agriculture. The FAO report determined that “soils are one of the main receptors of agricultural plastics and are known to contain larger quantities of microplastics than oceans.” Its widespread use raises concerns regarding the impact it has on public health and the environment.
“The trouble is we don’t know how much long-term damage the breaking down of these products is doing to agricultural soils,” Mahesh Pradhan, coordinator of the UN Environment Program’s (UNEP) Global Partnership for Nutrient Management, said. “We need to develop standardized methods of detecting microplastics in soil to better understand how long they remain there and how they change over time.”
While more research is needed to understand the full impact of plastic pollution on the world’s soils, there is “a concern that microplastics in agricultural soils could work their way up the food chain to harm human health,” EcoWatch reported.
“Plastic pollution of agricultural soils is a pervasive, persistent problem that threatens soil health throughout much of the world,” Jonathan Leake, professor at University of Sheffield, said. “We are currently adding large amounts of these unnatural materials into agricultural soils without understanding their long-term effects.”
According to research, world agriculture used approximately 13.8 million U.S. tons of plastic for plant and animal production in 2019 and approximately 41.1 million ton for food packaging in that the same year. The FAO report stressed the need for better management of agriculture plastics and introduced “the 6R model.” This model, which includes refuse, redesign, reduce, reuse, recycle and recover, is a potential solution that could help change agriculture practices and eventually phase out plastics altogether.
“The report serves as a loud call for decisive action to curb the disastrous use of plastics across the agricultural sectors,” Maria Helena Semedo, deputy director general at FAO, said in the report foreword.
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