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Opinion

Companies have a responsibility to build a better world post-COVID

Research indicates that human activities like agriculture and mining are among the key drivers of emerging infectious diseases like COVID-19. Such activities are often linked to or carried out by multinational enterprises. While current efforts to imagine a world post-COVID rightly emphasise the need for better government policy, it is also worth exploring what role multinational enterprises should play in shaping a more sustainable future. This blog tracks the recent history of agriculture, its relation to the outbreak of disease, and explores the argument that agrochemical companies have a responsibility to avert future pandemics.

Since the 1950s, the world has seen an enormous expansion of agriculture and major changes in the agricultural industry. The introduction of the “Green Revolution”, widely embraced in Latin America, Asia and later in Africa, transformed traditional agriculture to a model based on the heavy use of pesticides and genetically modified seeds. The expansion was enabled by massive deforestation, to make room for monocrop plantations - vast territories used to grow a single type of seed - now the dominant way of organising crop production. In Latin American countries, for instance, while forest surface has decreased, the surface of agricultural land has skyrocketed in recent decades, along with the use of pesticides and genetically modified seeds.

As its name suggests, the ‘Green Revolution’ carried great optimism, promising high yields and reduced poverty. For many, however, these promises never materialised. On the contrary, habitats, landscapes and biodiversity, food sovereignty and security, as well as the health of farmers and communities in production countries have suffered greatly as a result. The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and our partners have recently taken action in defence of farmers in India who were poisoned while spraying pesticides - one of the many harmful consequences of this agricultural model.

A study from 2015, analysing all reported emerging diseases from 1940 to 2004, found that two factors - agricultural industry changes and human-induced land-use changes like deforestation - account for a staggering 46 percent (nearly half) of all drivers of the disease emergences examined.

But the decades of ‘Green Revolution,’ and the deforestation with which it is associated, may have also unleashed forces that put greater public health at risk. A study from 2015, analysing all reported emerging diseases from 1940 to 2004, found that two factors - agricultural industry changes and human-induced land-use changes like deforestation - account for a staggering 46 percent (nearly half) of all drivers of the disease emergences examined. Due to the rate and scale of deforestation, often to make way for soy and cattle production and the region's extremely diverse ecosystems, Greenpeace warned last year that the next pandemic is likely to come from the Amazon. The former UN Special Rapporteur on Toxics also stated this year, that “the destruction of forest habitat […] risks further introduction of zoonotic diseases that can develop into another global pandemic.”

Multinational enterprises like members of CropLife International, an association of agrochemical companies including Bayer or Syngenta, are at the centre of the ‘Green Revolution' through the sale of seeds and pesticides to plantations around the world. These companies are unparalleled in their economic and research and development capabilities. They also have a high leverage over policy through lobbying. Under the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, all companies should respect human rights and conduct human rights due diligence. Companies’ due diligence not only involves their own activities but also those of the companies with which they are linked, even if they have not directly contributed to those impacts. So, while agrochemical companies, which sit at the top of a production model that includes many more actors, may not be direct actors of deforestation themselves, they sell their products to plantations who might be. Therefore, as a first step they should prevent and mitigate any adverse human rights impacts from the activities of these plantations. To meet this responsibility, companies should use their leverage to push for alternatives that do not rely on massive deforestation and if necessary, stop selling their products to purchasers who knowingly destroy pristine forests.

And the efforts shouldn’t stop there. A recent UN report rightly advises that, to avoid future pandemics, businesses, along with other actors, need to invest in agro-ecological methods of food production. Oxfam also said in 2014 that to make our food system better, we will need to make industrial farms more sustainable, including through converting large farms into smaller ones, where conditions support that.

Taking their human rights responsibilities seriously will require companies to use their considerable influence and leverage to help transform food production into a system that puts respect for human rights, nature and biodiversity at its centre.

Through the sale of their products to plantations worldwide, agrochemical companies have been major beneficiaries of the expansion and intensification of modern agriculture. Now they should play a strong role in reversing the drivers that may have contributed to the present pandemic, and help shape a more sustainable future. Taking their human rights responsibilities seriously will require companies to use their considerable influence and leverage to help transform food production into a system that puts respect for human rights, nature and biodiversity at its centre. Experts have already warned: without serious change, the next pandemic should come as no surprise.

Corina Ajder is a legal advisor and Soraia Da Costa Batista is a legal Referendarin, both at ECCHR

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