Why human rights must be at the heart of food industry climate action

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

Climate change and human rights are interconnected, a joined-up solution should be developed / Pic: GettyImages-Randomclicks
Climate change and human rights are interconnected, a joined-up solution should be developed / Pic: GettyImages-Randomclicks

Related tags: Human rights, Climate change

As the food industry works to cut its carbon impact, human rights need to be placed at the centre of mitigation strategies.

“The climate crisis is already devastating agriculture globally. It’s driving worsening humanitarian crisis, hunger and migration. People living in poverty, particularly women farmers and indigenous people, are being affected first and the worst,”​ Dr Franziska Humbert, Senior Policy Advisor Business and Human Rights at Oxfam, told FoodNavigator’s Climate Smart Food​ event last month.

“The climate crisis is a human rights crisis,”​ she stressed.

The link between food production and climate change is well established. The food sector accounts for around a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, the majority of which lie in the agricultural sector. If we are to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, thereby averting some of the worst consequences of global heating, the way we produce and consume food needs to change.

According to Dr Humbert, increasing food production levels globally has seen ‘progress come at the expense of land and water degradation, biodiversity loss, deforestation and increased greenhouse gas emissions, exasperating the climate crisis'. These environmental harms impact human rights, inhibiting rights to clean air, water, food, health and livelihoods, the Oxfam human rights expert claimed.

The food industry has a responsibility to tackle human rights issues in supply chains while also taking action on climate change. To do so effectively, the sector needs to understand the interplay between carbon strategies and human rights impact. 

wood forest iStock
Tree planting schemes to capture carbon could actually have negative human rights impact, Oxfam warns / Pic: iStock

Dr Humbert stressed that the sudden rush from governments and industry to make net zero pledges is over-reliant on ‘unreliable, unproven and unrealistic carbon removal schemes’. Many of these, she continued, would require ‘vast resources of land to plant trees’.

Global food prices have spiked 40% in the past year and contributed to 20 million poor people falling into ‘catastrophic’ conditions of hunger. “If you scale land-based carbon removal schemes… it could see global food prices surging by 80% by 2050," ​Dr Humbert warned. 

The human rights implications of such a surge would be hard felt globally, with the communities and demographics who are most food insecure taking the brunt of the shift.

Imbalance of power: ‘A handful of companies dominate the global food market’

Underlying the negative environmental and human rights impacts of the food chain is an ‘imbalance of power’, according to Dr Humbert,.

“Globalisation and traditional liberalism have resulted in the increasing commercialisation of agriculture and concentration of power,”​ Dr Humbert told her audience at the FoodNavigator summit.

“A handful of food companies and retailers dominate the global food market. Because of this imbalance in power, companies transfer costs to workers, suppliers, communities and the environment. Farmers in supply chains struggle to earn a living wage, women are marginalised, community resources are usurped, rights violated, and the environment is degraded.”

Dr Humbert pointed to work Oxfam has done on the pineapple supply chain as a case in point. According to analysis from Oxfam, retailers get around 40% of the price of a pineapple, while below 10% trickles back to workers. A similar picture is true in the example of bananas. Oxfam research shows 36% of the price of a banana goes to retailers and below 10% goes back to banana producers.

A current ongoing pricing dispute between European retailers and an alliance of Latin American banana producing countries​ stands as evidence of the clout large downstream corporations carry because they are able to impose conditions on suppliers. 

“Latin American banana farmers receive derisory offers per box of bananas, which have not risen in price for more than two decades unlike other fruits, because supermarkets like Aldi take advantage of the intrinsic nature of the sector. A sector of small and medium-sized producers, of family economies and of crucial importance for rural communities in Latin American countries that accept the harsh conditions because they cannot negotiate,”​ the alliance – spanning producers in Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Dominican Republic and Costa Rica – said this week.

“These negotiations are taking place in a global context of spiralling inflationary prices that affect production costs but are not reflected in the purchase price… It is not possible to offer a product with high quality standards at a price that has not changed in two decades with rising production costs… The sacrifices cannot come from one party alone.”

The coalition wants to see the principle of Shared Responsibility adopted across the supply chain, whereby the risks and rewards of production are taken on by all parties.

GettyImages-walking_onstreet banana
Banana growers say the cards are stacked against them because power isn't evenly distributed in the supply chain / Pic: GettyImages-walking_onstreet

Human rights, the environment and climate change 

Dr Humbert stressed the unfair distribution of resource down the chain – as well as cheap consumer prices for items like bananas in markets like Europe and North America – have very real consequences for human rights on the ground in producing countries.

“Commercialisation of agriculture comes at the expense of human rights, the environment and climate change,”​ she insisted.

Examining the environmental implications of intensive pineapple production, negative outcomes include the development of monocultures, the ‘intensive’ use of pesticides, erosion of the soil, loss of biodiversity and deforestation.

At the same time, workers are exposed to ‘highly toxic’ pesticides, often not approved for use in the US or Europe. Oxfam has documented that negative health outcomes - including nausea, vomiting and skin diseases - are commonplace. Local communities are also forced to deal with the fallout of groundwater contamination.

In terms of labour rights, Dr Humbert explained workers in agricultural sectors like pineapple production are often migrant workers without documentation, who aren’t paid a minimum wage, are exposed to ‘really bad harvesting conditions’ and the systematic violation of trade union rights.

The coalition of banana groups also stressed that pricing decision made in Europe will contribute to rural poverty and has the potential to undermine social cohesion in rural communities in Latin America. “This war price in Europe will eventually lead to the abandoning of rural areas, crowding in urban areas, hampering development in Latin American rural regions,”​ a coalition spokesperson warned. “Starting such a price war could mean a loss of thousands of jobs in the banana sector, crucial for the GDPs of all the countries concerned.”

The road forward

So, what’s the solution? 

“The first step is human rights due diligence in line with the United Nations Principles of Business and Human Rights and OECD guidelines,”​ Dr Humbert suggested.

These guiding principles point to various actions companies can take to place human rights at the heart of their climate and procurement strategies, including: due diligence; identifying and assessing human rights impacts; impact assessments; preventative measures or remediation; the establishment of a complaints mechanism; and the requirement to track and communicate work undertaken.

Nevertheless, Dr Humbert insisted: “Voluntary efforts are not enough. We need legislation.”

It would appear that the regulatory environment across some western countries is evolving to reflect the impact that supply chains have on human and environmental rights. In France, there is the Loi de Vigilance​; in Germany, supply chain due diligence rules; and at a European level the European Due Diligence Act has established the role that private businesses must take in stamping out human rights abuses from supply chains.

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