Sustaining Underdevelopment: Human Rights Accountability and the Business of Food

Nicholas Caivano

Global markets channel food—with ruthless efficiency—to the highest bidder, rather than to those who are most in need.1 While multinationals exercise unprecedented influence over the world’s food systems, there are few effective mechanisms to hold businesses to account for their impact on human rights.

While the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that came into effect on January 1 are not legally binding, the targets surrounding access to food (Goal 2) and good health (Goal 3) link directly to states’ existing human rights treaty obligations. Until states take action to hold powerful international stakeholders accountable for their indirect role in shaping human rights outcomes, the world’s food systems will remain a manifestation of corporate authority.

Chronic hunger represents one of the worst human rights violations of our time, and a major barrier to improving a range of public health outcomes. The ability to access adequate, nutritious food necessary to maintain a healthy life continues to elude almost 1 billion people.2 Although the world’s supply of food is keeping pace with population growth, grossly distorted global food systems that impede access to that supply continue to dominate because the systems prioritize agribusiness profits.

Economic players that operate across national borders can have a tremendous indirect impact on health and human rights. A handful of corporations dominate nearly the entire global food supply process, narrowing choices for farmers, distributers, and consumers.3 This large concentration of power has allowed these multinationals to influence the rules that govern the global food system by using their purchasing power, established networks, and size to shape common practices and industry standards.4

As powerful lobbying groups, multinationals also exert significant influence over law and policy that applies to their industries, which can result in less stringent regulations and negative impacts on income equality, the availability and quality of food, and health.5 They also have an enormous impact on human rights because hunger, malnutrition, and poor health outcomes are rooted in disempowerment and poverty. The world’s global food systems thus engender human rights harms by perpetuating inequality.6

Small farmers, particularly in the world’s poorest countries, suffer under asymmetric economic, financial, and trade practices that favor agribusiness corporations. Small, marginal, or subsistence farmers—those who cultivate land up to one hectare—produce 70% of the world’s food.7 These farmers have not benefitted from increases in food prices because the cost of inputs, such as fertilizer and seeds, has also surged, offsetting any rise in revenue.8 Small farmers have limited access to credit arrangements, irrigation, technical resources, and other inputs that could increase productivity. A shift towards market liberalization and globalization increasingly demands that small farmers lower prices and meet the standards set by supermarkets and large export traders.9 Under this model, small farmers have considerably less power than their global trading partners, and remain trapped in a cycle of poverty.10

As it stands, individuals seeking a remedy for human rights violations related to hunger and health face major barriers. Despite private actors wielding greater power than ever before, there is no clear institutional mechanism for holding private actors to account for their indirect impact on human rights.

While food multinationals operate through subsidiaries and indirect suppliers in multiple countries, states lack extraterritorial jurisdiction—the legal ability of a government to exercise authority beyond its borders. Furthermore, there is no additional level of accountability on the activities of corporations above a state’s domestic legislation, so those seeking redress in countries were business enterprises exploit weak and poorly-enforced laws face an uphill battle.

Business policies and practices in the area of human rights protection remain largely voluntary.11 The UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, for example, contain no accountability mechanism to evaluate how companies and governments apply these principles in practice.

Until these protection gaps are addressed, the duty to protect individuals and communities from human rights abuses arising from business activity, at home and abroad, lies with states. Meeting SDG Goals 2 and 3 requires acknowledgment of the role of multinationals in perpetuating a global institutional order that stands in conflict with the realization of the rights to food and health—and triumphs each time.

Nicholas Caivano is a Legal Fellow at Amnesty International


1 Olivier De Schutter, “Ending Hunger – The Rich World Holds the Keys” (25 March 2014) online: <>.

2 Olivier De Schutter, “Food Security Eludes Almost 1-Billion,” Business Day (22 April 2014) online: <>.

3 United Nations, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Hilal Elver: Access to Justice and the Right to Food: The Way Forward (12 January 2014) UN Doc A/HRC/28/65 at para 39.

4 Kurt Mills & David Jason Karp, eds, Human Rights Protection in Global Politics: Responsibly of State and Non-State Actors (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

5 See Jean Ziegler et al, The Fight for the Right to Food (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

6 Kurt Mills & David Jason Karp, eds, Human Rights Protection in Global Politics: Responsibly of State and Non-State Actors (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

7 Karla D Maass Wolfenson, Coping with the Food and Agriculture Challenge: Smallholders’ Agenda, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (Rome: FAO, 2013) at 22, online: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations <>.

8 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food Insecurity in the World, (Rome: FAO, 2011) at 9, online: <>.

9 See Peter Hazell, “Five Big Questions about Five Hundred Million Small Farms” (Paper delivered at the IFAD Conference on New Directions for Smallholder Agriculture, Rome, 24–25 January 2011) at 7, online: <>.

10 See Nandini Ramanujam, Nicholas Caivano & Semahagn Abebe, “From Justiciability to Justice: Realizing the Human Right to Food” (2015) 11:1 International Journal of Sustainable Development Law and Policy 1.

11 United Nations, Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the Issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises (28 February 2007) UN Doc A/HRC/4/35/Add.3 at para 65.