Climate Change’s Inadvertent Human Rights Impacts in the Agriculture Industry

Last week, the United Nations warned that the world is facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the organization’s creation in 1945.  More than 20 million people in Kenya, Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia face starvation, famine, and disease.  In addition to armed conflict, climate change is a key factor contributing to this and similar crises. It is a stark reminder of the human rights impacts of climate change and the importance of businesses to help address those impacts. 

The agriculture supply chain already faces a number of human rights challenges, most notably linked to working conditions in agricultural fields – child labor, forced overtime, inadequate wages, and human trafficking are traditional examples.  However, as we are finding in the human rights due diligence that we are conducting in this sector, the scope of issues broadens significantly when considering the impacts of climate change.  

Extreme weather and climate events will make it more difficult in the future to grow crops, raise animals, and catch fish in the same ways and locations as done today.  As a result, the resulting supply disruptions and shortages will deepen human rights concerns for vulnerable populations in agricultural fields and beyond in four key ways:

 

1.     MIGRANT POPULATIONS

The struggle to ensure adequate crop yields and increasingly volatile commodity markets result in diminished incentives for younger generations to pursue work in agriculture.  Youth are increasingly turning their backs on the long hours and low wages associated with rural farming, preferring instead to migrate to urban centers or across borders for decent work in other sectors. Domestic and international migrant populations are particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses, including the trafficking of persons, forced labor, and poor working conditions.

To help address these risks, agricultural companies can support mechanisms whereby workers are provided a living wage and adequate working conditions.  This starts with responsible recruitment practices, and the continued monitoring of human rights risks in the supply chain. If no action in this direction is taken, the industry as a whole is likely to suffer, from increased difficulty in maintaining its workforce to more volatile supply chain security.

 

2.     FOOD SECURITY

Crop shortages that result from the effects of climate change can pose a real risk to global food security, which the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights notes is a “pre-condition for the full enjoyment of the right to food.” Furthermore, the impact of climate change on food security will not only relate to the quantity of food available, but also to food quality, access, and utilization.[1]  

The World Food Program estimates that 11 percent of the world’s population still goes to bed hungry, and this number is expected to increase by 10 to 20 percent by 2050, as a direct result of climate change. With the vast majority of the hungry depending on agriculture for their livelihoods, they are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of global warming and an unstable climate. 

In our experience working with companies in the sector, there are a number of ways in which business can help address food security. For example, agrobusiness companies can help address food security through technology innovation to drive efficiency and environmental protection in farming. In addition, companies should advocate for public policies that mitigate and adjust to the effects of climate change in their home and sourcing countries.

 

3.     ARMED CONFLICT

Increased crop shortages can lead not only to decreased food security, but to serious human rights and humanitarian crises linked to armed conflict. In 2007 Ban Ki-Moon, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, pointed to the underlying role of climate change as it related to the Darfur crisis onset, stating that the “Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change.”  Indeed, creeping desertification can lead to tensions among local populations, especially where deep ethnic divides are present. A 2016 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) indicates that 9 percent of armed conflicts from 1980-2010 were linked to climate change-related impacts, including heat waves or droughts, and that this number increases to 23 percent in countries with ethnically fractionalized populations. With the expected exacerbation of climate change impacts in the future, the rise of conflict is a real risk to the wellbeing of global communities.

There is an opportunity for agricultural businesses to ensure respect for land rights and tenure, as access to arable land becomes an increasingly precious commodity.  Businesses can take a first step toward securing the rights of local landowners by aligning their practices with the UN FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security.

 

4.     UNSAFE WORKPLACES

Lastly, climate change has been linked to the increased use of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides in agriculture, due to the proliferation of pests and plant diseases that result. One example is with coffee production, where coffee rust has made the application of fungicides a necessity for sustained crop production. As has been well documented, these chemical applications can have adverse effects on the environment and human health if not used properly.  Thus, agricultural field workers face significant increases in the risk of occupational exposure to toxic chemicals that can compromise their health.  

Companies with agricultural supply chains should ensure that their suppliers take preventive measures to protect the health of field workers. This includes proper training on the safe application of these chemicals, and providing workers with protective gear to prevent contamination and exposure.

 

The agriculture industry is being challenged in multiple ways, and climate change is one looming reality that can have direct and indirect impacts on human rights.  The breadth of risk and potential severity of climate change impacts should be a driving force for agriculture companies to work toward solutions.

--

[1] The FAO defines food utilization as being “through adequate diet, clean water, sanitation and health care, to reach a state of nutritional well-being where all physiological needs are met.”