Agriculture on the agenda during recent negotiations on proposed new global plastic treaty
The second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC-2) to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, took place in Paris during the week 29 May–2 June. FAO attended in an observer capacity, joining around 1 700 delegates representing Member States, international organizations and non-governmental organizations.
Addressing delegates on 31 May, Lev Neretin (LN), Environment stream lead in FAO’s Office of Climate Change, Biodiversity and Environment, underlined the importance of recognizing both benefits and trade-offs of plastic use in agriculture. He stressed that solutions to plastics pollution in agrifood value chains need to be cross-sectoral, inclusive, based on principles of circularity and an integral part of the overall transformation of agrifood systems.
“FAO is fully committed to assisting Members in ensuring that the new instrument on plastic pollution encompasses the sustainable management of plastics across all agricultural sectors with due consideration to nutrition, food safety, and food security and taking into account the role of smallholder farmers and fishers,” Neretin said in opening remarks to the INC-2 plenary.
As the dust settled, we caught up with him to discuss some of the main take-homes from INC-2.
Q. What were the key issues and outcomes of the latest round of INC negotiations?
LN: Regarding content, some countries have a very strong desire to reach a common target on reducing the production of primary plastic polymers; while others are emphasizing the importance of keeping plastics within the economy without binding obligations. There are also questions regarding how to address definitions of terms such as “problematic, unnecessary and avoidable plastic products”, which the proposed instrument seeks to address – these could be interpreted in different ways depending on the context and sector. Discussions focused on a suite of around 40 options for reducing plastic pollution, which individual countries could apply in a tailored way with the same overall objective.
At a procedural level, two days of INC-2 negotiations were spent on trying to shape the process the negotiations would follow; unfortunately, negotiators didn’t manage to achieve this entirely. Some countries are worried that the INC decision-making process is moving away from the consensus-based type process United Nations negotiations usually take, towards a majority-based voting system.
Ultimately, it was agreed that the INC Chair, supported by the Secretariat, would produce a zero draft text of the proposed legally binding instrument in time for the third round of negotiations (INC-3), which will take place in Nairobi in late 2023. It’s certainly an ambitious timeframe and it may require some intensive intersessional negotiations to produce the text! The overall aim is to have a final agreed text by the end of 2024.
Q. What is the relevance of the agriculture sector for the work of the INC? And how could a proposed new legally binding instrument address plastics used in agriculture?
LN: FAO released a landmark report in late 2021 where it estimated that around 12.5 million tonnes of plastics are used annually in agricultural production, which includes crop production, livestock, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture. Most of these plastics are single-use and end up being inadequately disposed of. Indeed, terrestrial pollution from agricultural plastics is as troublesome as marine pollution, even though it generally gets less attention.
Any new legally binding instrument on plastic pollution will need to take account of how plastics are used in different sub-sectors and what options there are to reduce their negative impacts. For FAO, as a specialized agency of the United Nations leading global discussions on food and agriculture issues, the use of plastics in agrifood systems will require a sectoral approach in any future treaty. Quite simply, we cannot have meaningful discussions on a plastics treaty without addressing the agrifood dimension.
Q. The proposed treaty will also address pollution caused by micro- and nanoplastics and their effects on environment and health. How much of this type of pollution can be attributed to agriculture?
LN: Micro- and nanoplastics are now pretty much ubiquitous throughout agrifood systems. We find them in grains, salt, sugar, milk, meat and myriad other common comestibles. Many of these particles are undoubtedly derived from plastic used in agriculture, but they can also come from other sectors and end up in the agrifood chain. As many as 13 000 chemicals are used in plastic production, some of them highly toxic, so there is a sense of urgency about finding common solutions that can help us mitigate risks to human and planetary health.
Q. Lastly, how can FAO, and agriculture more generally, be a solution provider to reduce the presence of plastic particles in the food chain and in our terrestrial and aquatic environments?
LN: FAO Members recommended in 2022 that the Organization start the process to develop a Voluntary Code of Conduct (VCoC) on the sustainable use of plastics in agriculture. As part of this recommendation, and in parallel with the INC process, FAO will hold a series of global and regional consultations with Members and stakeholders to receive inputs and feedback to drive this process.
At the same time, thanks to a collaboration with the UN Environment Programme and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), FAO will support Kenya and Uruguay to catalyse a framework for investment to detoxify the agriculture sector by eliminating the use of the most harmful inputs from agrochemicals and plastics. FAO is also implementing an ambitious programme supporting countries to comply with the provisions of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, and has produced Voluntary Guidelines on the Marking of Fishing Gear.
Finally, FAO is the first UN agency to make bioeconomy a strategic priority through its Strategic Framework 2022-31, and bio-based innovations will be an important part of any solution to tackle plastic pollution in agriculture. Bio-based plastics are not a silver bullet – there are still knowledge gaps to address around their composition, and at times issues around their biodegradability and compostability, but the search for less toxic alternatives to materials made of fossil-fuel based plastic is a step in the right direction.
Photo: FAO team at INC-2 negotiations in Paris.