Human rights are inherent to all human beings. They are defined and established in more than 80 international legal instruments and define the fundamental protections of human dignity, needs, and freedoms, such as food, housing, privacy, personal security, and democratic participation. Since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948, the responsibility to protect human rights has primarily fallen on governments. Beginning in the early 2000s, however, it became increasingly clear that the freedoms enshrined in the framework could also be violated—and promoted—by the private sector.

In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), the first international instrument to assign companies the responsibility to respect human rights.

The Guiding Principles state that companies must refrain from negatively impacting rights even when governments are failing to create or enforce necessary laws and that those victims of corporate abuses must have access to effective remedy.

As part of this responsibility, the Guiding Principles require companies to actively identify and manage the negative human rights impacts that they may cause directly and those to which they contribute through their business practices and relationships. There are several key actions a company can take as part of this due diligence cycle: conduct a human rights assessment to determine which potential human rights impacts are most salient to their business, develop and publish a human rights policy to communicate expectations to stakeholders and business partners, ensure they have robust stakeholder engagement processes in place to support ongoing monitoring of potential or actual impacts and proactive action or remedy.

This issue brief identifies the 10 most relevant, urgent, and probable human rights impacts for businesses operating in the food, beverage, and agriculture (FBA) sector. The information here is gathered from BSR’s direct engagement with FBA companies, as well as our 30 years of experience helping companies in all sectors manage their human rights risks. This sector spans all aspects of the global food system, from agriculture to transport, packaging, and retail. It nourishes the world’s population and connects economies in an expansive global value chain.

Yet, as with all complex industries and supply chains, the FBA sector has adverse impacts on people and the environment across the value chain—from farm level to retail and everything in between. While global food systems proved to be resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic effects exacerbated inequalities and acute food insecurity for the most vulnerable, demonstrating the structural nature of some of these adverse impacts.1

The FBA supply chain is also responsible for 21–37 percent of GHG emissions every year, which means the sector is a key contributor to climate change.2 As the world’s population is expected to grow to 10 billion by 2050, the demand for food will intensify, which may further strain the global food system and exacerbate existing inequalities, human rights risks, and environmental degradation. Understanding the human rights risks and impacts across this complex and necessary system will help those companies within the various industries that make up the FBA sector begin to unpack what contributions they can make to mitigating the negative impacts and seizing on opportunities to advance human rights for all.