Pesticides are a global human rights concern

Pesticides are NOT necessary to feed the world says report authors

This post content, published by Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food, and Baskut Tuncak, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights & Hazardous Substances & Wastes, is our abstract Part 4/4 of their Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food for the United Nations.

The report warnings of catastrophic consequences and blaming manufacturers for ‘systematic denial of harms’ and ‘unethical marketing tactics’ is shared by Damian Carrington alongside with report UNSR authors interview on The Guardian. Agroecology image credit national agroforestry center.


While the present report has illustrated that there is no shortage of international and national legislation, as well as non-binding guidelines, such instruments are failing to protect humans and the environment from hazardous pesticides. These instruments suffer from implementation, enforcement and coverage gaps, and generally fail to effectively apply the precautionary principle or meaningfully alter many business practices. Existing instruments are particularly ineffective in addressing the cross-border nature of the global pesticide market, as proven by the widespread and often legally permitted practices of exporting banned highly hazardous pesticides to third countries. These gaps and inadequacies should be confronted on the basis of human rights mechanisms.

International human rights law sets forth comprehensive State obligations to respect, protect and fulfill human rights. In particular, the rights to adequate food and to health provide clear protections for all people against excessive or inappropriate use of pesticides. Taking a human rights approach to pesticides guarantees the principles of universality and non-discrimination, under which human rights are guaranteed for all persons, including vulnerable groups, who disproportionately feel the burden of hazardous pesticides.

Implementing the right to adequate food and health requires proactive measures to eliminate harmful pesticides. Corporations have the responsibility to ensure that the chemicals they produce and sell do not pose threats to these rights. There continues to be a general lack of awareness of the dangers posed by certain pesticides, a condition exacerbated by industry efforts to downplay the harm being done as well as complacent Governments that often make misleading assertions that existing legislation and regulatory frameworks provide sufficient protection.

While efforts to ban and appropriately regulate the use of pesticides are a necessary step in the right direction, the most effective, long-term method to reduce exposure to these toxic chemicals is to move away from industrial agriculture.

In the words of the Director-General of FAO, we have reached a turning point in agriculture. Today’s dominant agricultural model is highly problematic, not only because of damage inflicted by pesticides, but also their effects on climate change, loss of biodiversity and inability to ensure food sovereignty. These issues are intimately interlinked and must be addressed together to ensure that the right to food is achieved to its full potential. Efforts to tackle hazardous pesticides will only be successful if they address the ecological, economic and social factors that are embedded in agricultural policies, as articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals. Political will is needed to re-evaluate and challenge the vested interests, incentives and power relations that keep industrial agrochemical-dependent farming in place. Agricultural policies, trade systems and corporate influence over public policy must all be challenged if we are to move away from pesticide-reliant industrial food systems.


The international community must work on a comprehensive, binding treaty to regulate hazardous pesticides throughout their life cycle, taking into account human rights principles. Such an instrument should:

  • Aim to remove existing double standards among countries that are particularly detrimental to countries with weaker regulatory systems;
  • Generate policies to reduce pesticide use worldwide and develop a framework for the banning and phasing-out of highly hazardous pesticides;
  • Promote agroecology;
  • Place strict liability on pesticide producers

States should:

  • Develop comprehensive national action plans that include incentives to support alternatives to hazardous pesticides, as well as initiate binding and measurable reduction targets with time limits;
  • Establish systems to enable various national agencies responsible for agriculture, public health and the environment to cooperate efficiently to address the adverse impact of pesticides and to mitigate risks related to their misuse and overuse;
  • Establish impartial and independent risk-assessment and registration processes for pesticides, with full disclosure requirements from the producer. Such processes must be based on the precautionary principle, taking into account the hazardous effects of pesticide products on human health and the environment;
  • Consider non-chemical alternatives first, and only allow chemicals to be registered where need can be demonstrated;
  • Enact safety measures to ensure adequate protections for pregnant women, children and other groups who are particularly susceptible to pesticide exposure;
  • Fund comprehensive scientific studies on the potential health effects of pesticides, including exposure to a mixture of chemicals as well as multiple exposures over time;
  • Guarantee rigorous and regular analysis of food and beverages to determine levels of hazardous residues, including in infant formula and follow-on foods, and make such information accessible to the public;
  • Closely monitor agricultural pesticide use and storage to minimize risks and ensure that only those with the requisite training are permitted to apply such products, and that they do so according to instructions and using appropriate protective equipment;
  • Create buffer zones around plantations and farms until pesticides are phased out, to reduce pesticide exposure risk;
  • Organize training programmes for farmers to raise awareness of the harmful effects of hazardous pesticides and of alternative methods;
  • Take necessary measures to safeguard the public’s right to information, including enforcing requirements to indicate the type of pesticides used and level of residues on the labels of food and drink products;
  • Regulate corporations to respect human rights and avoid environmental damage during the entire life cycle of pesticides;
  • Impose penalties on companies that fabricate evidence and disseminate misinformation on the health and environmental risks of their products;
  • Monitor corporations to ensure that labelling, safety precautions and training standards are respected;
  • Encourage farmers to adopt agroecological practices to enhance biodiversity and naturally suppress pests, and to adopt measures such as crop rotation, soil fertility management and crop selection appropriate for local conditions;
  • Provide incentives for organically produced food through subsidies and financial and technical assistance, as well as by using public procurement;
  • Encourage the pesticide industry to develop alternative pest management approaches;
  • Eliminate pesticide subsidies and instead initiate pesticide taxes, import tariffs and pesticide-use fees.

Civil society should inform the general public about adverse impact of pesticides on human health and environmental damage, as well as organizing training programmes on agroecology.

Read and download the complete Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food A/HRC/34/48 on UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR On Human Rights & Toxics.

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