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Human Stories

Human Rights in the Food System | Ask the Expert

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. We interviewed Wageningen University's Dr Nadia Bernaz, a business and human rights scholar, to understand how human rights and the food system might be connected.

What do human rights issues look like in food supply chains?

There are three main areas where you might see human rights issues in the food system. 

1. Labour

The most obvious issues are the ones related to labour. So, we're talking about health and safety in factories or in fields, wages, union issues, forced labour, and in extreme cases, modern slavery. 

2. Land rights

These are issues that have to do with the land on which agricultural products are grown. Often, companies lease out a large area of land from the government of a country to grow food crops. Then it turns out that there are actually people living on that land, but they don't necessarily have a formal title to the land or own the property. Because of this development, they have to leave the land that they've been occupying for a very long time. So that leads to displacement of people and them losing a whole lot of rights in the process. 

3. Food safety

Thirdly, there are issues related to the safety of food. These are, of course, technical or scientific issues, but you can also approach food safety as a human rights issue. For instance, some years ago, there was a food fraud scandal involving baby formula from China. Due to a safety issue, several infants, very unfortunately, died or had lung health issues. The right to health, right to life, and right to food are internationally recognised human rights, and food safety plays an important role in realising them. 

Is the environmental impact of growing food connected to human rights in any way?

It’s interesting - the two agendas (the human rights agenda and the environmental agenda) don't always align, and I think it's important to recognise that. Of course, we should strive for policies and systems that benefit humans while not destroying the environment: that is the golden standard. But there are also situations where something that is good for the environment is not going to be good for people, or the other way around, and I think sometimes companies need to juggle these contradictions. 

Who is responsible for ensuring that we do not infringe on people's rights while producing food? Is it governments, companies or consumers? 

Everybody is responsible, and that's why it's so difficult to make it happen. I can give you the legal answer, which is that it is the responsibility primarily of governments. Secondly, it is the responsibility of the companies themselves, especially regarding situations that governments have limited control over. 

For example, the Dutch government has a responsibility to oversee what a company based in the Netherlands is doing. But the Dutch government cannot monitor precisely what the company is doing when it is buying things abroad. Then it becomes the responsibility of the company to have an idea about the issues in the supply chain and tackle those issues in a way that will advance human rights rather than engaging in human rights abuse. There are also other governments involved. So, if you have a Dutch company that purchases mangoes from Guatemala, it is also the responsibility of the Guatemalan government to regulate the activities of the company that is picking the mangoes. But we know that protecting human rights can be more efficient in some countries than in others, so the responsibility is spread among various actors. 

As consumers, our responsibilities are not the same because the power of the consumer is to buy or not to buy. That's very limited. I also personally don't think it's a very effective way of pushing for change. If I don't buy a bar of chocolate, it's a conscious decision, but at the end of the day, does that really change policies that companies or governments have in place? I don't really think so. I'm not convinced we have that much power individually - but individuals as actively involved citizens could potentially make a difference in policy.

How can we ensure that companies, especially those operating overseas, respect human rights? 

It is challenging. I think there's no point denying this or making it sound like it's an easy task. It’s challenging also because it's an afterthought. Over the past 30 years, supply chains have delocalised, and let's face it, for a very long time, without any recognition of the human rights impact. In fact, many supply chains have expanded internationally precisely because of the low level of protection for workers in certain countries and in the hope of providing more diversity to consumers at low prices. 

Now we're coming in and asking companies to precisely track where they buy from and the issues they have in their supply chains. This is very difficult because the whole system was built with no regard for these issues, or worse, with precisely the idea of exploiting shortcomings. So, it's really an uphill battle - and I think it's just only starting.

We often see products with sustainability labels on them - like the Fairtrade label on a bar of chocolate. Do labels or certifications like these help with protecting human rights?

I think they serve a purpose and might have some impact. First of all, they get the consumers to think about the alternative. So, if one chocolate has the Fairtrade symbol and the other one has nothing written, that means you can assume that it's not fairly produced, right? So, if nothing else, it's at least pointing out the deficiencies of the other product.

From a human rights perspective, the problem with certifications is that there's a sea of standards, and all of them have different requirements in terms of labour rights, wages, union rights, etc. This lack of uniformity makes labels difficult to read for consumers. 

Next to this, the problem is also with how companies acquire these labels. Often, the only way to get certified is through an audit. So, you have auditors with a checklist who go into the fields or factories for an inspection. I have heard lots of stories from people who are auditors themselves about why it isn’t the most effective method to check compliance with human rights. For example, I know of an auditor who checked a factory and then went to have lunch across the street. There, she saw fire extinguishers being taken from the factory she had just audited to the next factory due to be audited! So, there are all sorts of issues like that with audits. 

Certifications and labels are a reaction to something. They are not a human rights driven change. It’s a way for companies to show that they are doing the bare minimum by getting a stamp of approval at a moment in time, but without, in my view, deep rethinking of the problem itself.

Read about the unseen problems with sustainability labelling 

So, how can consumers ensure that their favourite brands produce food in a way that does not violate human rights?

Consumers are also citizens. So, my advice to people would be to start by learning more about these issues and push for them to be on the political agenda. We've seen in the past few years that these issues are not talked about unless companies are really forced to do so through government regulation. So it's important that the people who advocate for this actually push for it to be on the political scene - both at the domestic level and at the level of the European Union. 

What might change in the coming years regarding how companies are held accountable for their actions?

Two big changes can be expected. One is the farm-to-fork strategy of the European Union, which was just adopted this year and includes talking about adopting a code of conduct for food companies that will hopefully cover these issues. 

The second development, also at the EU level, is the adoption of due diligence legislation. This would force companies to research and investigate the area of human rights and environmental protection within their supply chains. The expectation is that companies will be held liable for not having a due diligence system in place. 

Both these developments are expected in 2021, so we must wait to see what the actual contents of these policies are.

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