Note by the Secretariat
The Secretariat has the honour to transmit to the Human Rights Council the report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, pursuant to Council resolutions 6/2, 31/10 and 32/8. The report was written in collaboration with the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes. In the report, a clearer account is provided of global pesticide use in agriculture and its impact on human rights; the negative consequences that pesticide practices have had on human health, the environment and society, which are underreported and monitored in the shadow of a prevailing and narrow focus on “food security”, are described; and the environmental and human rights regimes are examined to determine whether the constituent rules are sufficient to protect farm workers, consumers and vulnerable groups, as well as the natural resources that are necessary to support sustainable food systems.
I . Introduction
1 . The present report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food was written in collaboration with the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes.
Pesticides, which have been aggressively promoted, are a global human rights concern, and their use can have very detrimental consequences on the enjoyment of the right to food.
Defined as any substance or mixture of substances of chemical and biological ingredients intended to repel, destroy or control any pest or regulate plant growth, 1 pesticides are responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year, 2 99 per cent of which occur in developing countries,3 where health, safety and environmental regulations are weaker and less strictly applied. While records on global pesticide use are incomplete,4 it is generally agreed that application rates have increased dramatically over the past few decades.
2 . Despite the harms associated with excessive and unsafe pesticide practices, it is commonly argued that intensive industrial agriculture, which is heavily reliant on pesticide inputs, is necessary to increase yields to feed a growing world population, particularly in the light of negative climate change impacts and global scarcity of farmlands. Indeed, over the past 50 years, the global population has more than doubled, while available arable land has only increased by about 10 per cent.5 Evolving technology in pesticide manufacture, among other agricultural innovations, has certainly helped to keep agricultural production apace of unprecedented jumps in food demand. However, this has come at the expense of human health and the environment. Equally, increased food production has not succeeded in eliminating hunger worldwide. Reliance on hazardous pesticides is a short-term solution that undermines the rights to adequate food and health for present and future generations.
3 . Pesticides cause an array of harms. Runoff from treated crops frequently pollute the surrounding ecosystem and beyond, with unpredictable ecological consequences.
Furthermore, reductions in pest populations upset the complex balance between predator and prey species in the food chain, thereby destabilizing the ecosystem. Pesticides can also decrease biodiversity of soils and contribute to nitrogen fixation, which can lead to large declines in crop yields, posing problems for food security.
4 . While scientific research confirms the adverse effects of pesticides, proving a definitive link between exposure and human diseases or conditions, or harm to the ecosystem presents a considerable challenge. This challenge has been exacerbated by a systematic denial, fuelled by the pesticide and agroindustry, of the magnitude of the damage inflicted by these chemicals, and aggressive, unethical marketing tactics remain unchallenged.
5 . Exposure to pesticides can have severe impacts on the enjoyment of human rights, in particular the right to adequate food, as well as the right to health. The right to food obligates States to implement protective measures and food safety requirements to ensure that food is safe, free from pesticides and qualitatively adequate. Furthermore, human rights standards require States to protect vulnerable groups, such as farm workers and agricultural communities, children and pregnant women from the impacts of pesticides.
6 . Although certain multinational treaties and non-binding initiatives offer some limited protections, a comprehensive treaty that regulates highly hazardous pesticides does not exist, leaving a critical gap in the human rights protection framework.
7 . Without or with minimal use of toxic chemicals, it is possible to produce healthier, nutrient-rich food, with higher yields in the longer term, without polluting and exhausting environmental resources.6 The solution requires a holistic approach to the right to adequate food that includes phasing out dangerous pesticides and enforcing an effective regulatory framework grounded on a human rights approach, coupled with a transition towards sustainable agricultural practices that take into account the challenges of resource scarcity and climate change.