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FAO’s guidance on use of agricultural plastics

Over the last 70 years, the use of plastics in agrifood systems and food value chains has become pervasive. Low-cost and adaptable plastic products have crept into every part of our food systems – from mulching films, tree guards to greenhouses in production; and crates and packaging in processing and marketing. The Organization’s report Assessment of agricultural plastics and their sustainability: A call for action (2021)1 (the Report) estimated that every year 12.5 million tonnes of plastic products are used in plant and animal production, and the additional 37.3 million tonnes in food packaging. The crop production and livestock sectors are the largest users, accounting for 10 million tonnes per year (2.8 percent of the global plastic production), followed by fisheries and aquaculture with 2.1 million tonnes, and forestry with 0.2 million tonnes. The Report confirmed that agricultural plastics have both positive and negative impacts on food security, food safety and nutrition, as well as on social and economic dimensions of sustainability. The widespread and long-term use of plastic products in agriculture, coupled with lack of systematic collection and sustainable management, leads to their accumulation in soils and aquatic environments, with potential for harm to ecosystems and human health. Significant knowledge gaps related to distribution, benefits, trade-offs, and risks of agricultural plastics and their alternatives remain.

There are currently no overarching international policy or legislative instruments that cover all aspects of the use of plastics in agrifood value chains and throughout their lifecycle. Similarly, at national level, only a few countries have governance measures that address limited aspects of agricultural plastics. Existing FAO guidance largely focuses on the benefits of agricultural plastics. Agricultural plastics have to be addressed urgently in a holistic manner using life-cycle approaches and the principles of circularity. In addition to actions mainstreaming the sustainability of agricultural plastics throughout the existing FAO’s instruments and guidance related to good agricultural practices, food security, food safety and nutrition, a comprehensive Voluntary Code of Conduct on agricultural plastics use and sustainability, which could cover the full life cycle of plastic use throughout agrifood value chains from its design, regulatory approval, manufacture, distribution, sale, use, and management at end-of-life could offer a solution to prevent plastic pollution in agriculture and its related risks to human health and adverse effects on human well-being and the environment.

It should be developed recognizing the importance of cooperation, coordination and complementarity among relevant regional and international conventions and instruments, including provisions of the Resolution End plastic pollution: Towards an international legally binding instrument of the Fifth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5.2), and the crucial role of science. A Voluntary Code of Conduct will support the goals of the FAO Strategic Framework 2022- 31 in this regard, to achieve the four betters of agrifood systems transformation – better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life for all, leaving no one behind. It will also contribute to the outcomes of several of FAO’s Programme Priority Areas (PPAs), including better environment “Bioeconomy for Sustainable Food and Agriculture” (BE2), and the achievement of the associated Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12 which targets supporting Members in formulating and implementing integrated evidence-based bioeconomy policies, and practices in micro and macro environments, using technological, organizational and social innovations.

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