In March 2022, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) partnered with the World Health Organization to push for healthy farming initiatives in former tobacco farms.
In cooperation with local Kenyan authorities, FAO and WHO created training programs that helped former Kenyan tobacco farmers switch to alternative crops, such as beans.
Improved Farmer Welfare
Since the initiative began, participating farmers have sold 135 tonnes of beans to the World Food Programme (WFP). Farmers noted that bean growth had generated significantly more income than tobacco farming.
Growing beans also improved the overall health of the participating farmers. The old practice of tobacco farming exposed farmers and their families to a number of harmful substances, such as tobacco dust and chemical pesticides. These substances increased the farmers’ risk of developing severe health problems, such as nicotine addiction, cancer, and cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
The Tobacco Industry and the Environment
Recently, the tobacco industry has promised to put sustainability at the forefront of its practices. Cigarette manufacturing company British American Tobacco invested $57.8 million into sustainable community projects and charities. However, these contributions have failed to compensate for the devastating environmental costs tobacco consumption causes.
Worldwide, the process of farming tobacco leads to widespread deforestation, soil degradation, and water contamination. In Malawi, for instance, 70% of deforestation can be attributed to the tobacco industry.
The waste created by tobacco products harms plant and animal life. Studies show that microplastics from cigarette butts can hinder plant growth and emit poisonous fumes. The chemical components of cigarette litter are also toxic to marine and freshwater life.
Environmentally Friendly Smoking Alternatives
Recently, there have been attempts to reduce the environmental impact of tobacco. Within the past few years, smoking alternatives called nicotine pouches have gained traction among nicotine users. Prilla explains that nicotine pouches don’t produce smoke, which means they do not contribute to air pollution. Because nicotine pouches contain zero tobacco content, they do not add to the environmental degradation caused by tobacco farming. Unlike cigarette butts, nicotine pouches can be discarded among regular waste, which reduces the chances that they make their way into water ecosystems.
In 2019, South African company Smokey Treats also developed the first biodegradable cigarette, which the company dubbed “eco-cigarettes.” Instead of the usual plastic, Smokey Treats uses biodegradable unbleached wood pulp for the butts, wrappers, and boxes of its eco-cigarettes. Smokey Treats also uses sustainable soy when printing packaging text. Though eco-cigarettes have the same impact on health as regular cigarettes, they aim to minimize the environmental damage cigarette waste causes.
Other Uses for Tobacco
Though tobacco is known for its negative effects on the environment and human health, researchers have found more helpful uses for the plant. In 2013, the agricultural engineer Ruth Sanz-Barrio proposed the viability of tobacco plants as raw materials for biofuel. In her Ph.D. thesis, Sanz-Barrio succeeded in increasing the starch and fermentable sugar content produced by tobacco leaves. Sanz-Barrio proposed that genetically modified tobacco plants could be better options for producing biofuels compared to food crops.