The FAO, in its report, has noted that the agrifood system has become increasingly dependent on plastics. This calls for a look at this newer source of plastic pollution.
How is plastic used in agriculture?
- According to the FAO, some 12.5 million tonnes of plastic products was used in the agricultural value chain in 2019.
- It is used:
- To pack seeds and fertilizers in sachets, sacks and containers
- In seeding trays
- In mulching films
- In greenhouse film
- In protective nets
- In drip irrigation tapes
- In irrigation pipes, etc.
- These products contain polymers like:
- Expanded polystyrene
- PVC (Polyvinyl chloride)
- Polyethylene terephthalate
- In India, the use of agri plastics has been linked to a ‘Second Green Revolution’.
- To promote plasticulture i.e. application of plastics in agriculture, the National Committee on Plasticulture Applications in Horticulture was started in 2001. This was later renamed to National Committee On Precision Agriculture & Horticulture.
- 22 Precision Farming Development Centres in place to promote agri-plastics in horticulture
- Organization of awareness programs, workshops, training, audio-visual materials, etc. to influence the farmers.
Why is it a concern?
- The increasing ‘plasticulture’ is endangering soil, biodiversity and human health.
- According to the recent FAO report, there is more microplastics in the soil than in the oceans. copyright©iasexpress.net
- Leaching of potential carcinogens, like phthalate acid esters, from these agri plastics is a concern. For instance, PVC, infamously known as ‘poison plastic’, releases chlorine-based carcinogens into the environment.
- Only a few decades into the Green Revolution, famers started falling prey to cancer. For instance, Punjab emerged as the cancer capital of the country.
- The additives and other chemicals can reduce soil porosity and hamper air circulation.
- It has the ability to alter the microbial community in the soil, thus impacting soil fertility.
What is the way ahead?
- India is expected to see chemicals and petrochemicals demand to touch $ 1 trillion by 2040. This will also boost the plasticulture practices.
- Currently, India doesn’t even have a sufficient system to manage biodegradable waste, let alone plastic waste, in >90% villages. Hence, plastic waste management is either by burning or burying- which is concerning, as it emits dioxins and furans.
- There is a pressing need to improve how we handle and regulate the millions of tonnes of microplastics generated via the agrifood system.
- There is a need for coordination among the governing entities, academicians and the industries. Currently, they seem to work, not only in silos, but in hostility.
- While some researchers are raising concerns about the negative fallouts of agri-plastics, the plastic industry is promoting their own studies pointing to how these products increase yields, save water, fertilizers and labour. copyright©iasexpress.net
- The plastic industry is also lobbying to influence the government policy with regards to this field. Note that, while the central government banned <120 micron single-use carry bags, it gave a 50% subsidy for single-use mulching sheets as thin as 15 microns.
- The scientist Chelsea Rochman, in 2013, called for the re-classification of certain plastics (like polyurethane, PVC, polystyrene and polycarbonate) as hazardous materials to better facilitate their regulation by environmental protection agencies.
- Given how India has pioneered sustainable agricultural practices, an outright ban on non-essential agri plastics needs to be considered.
- Invoking a new ‘Extended Legislature Responsibility’ clause will also help.
Today, plastics have caused an agricultural mirage, as the petroleum industry is looking to carefully place its eggs in diverse baskets, as the countries transition away from fossil fuels. The recent FAO report highlights the consequences of this development. This calls for steps to stem this relatively newer source of plastic pollution.