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Food Industry Agreement: Righting Wrongs with the Whole Sector

Today the Dutch Agreement on International Responsible Business Conduct in the Food industry will be signed by the government, employer and employee organizations, and civil society organizations.

Food Industry Agreement: Righting Wrongs with the Whole Sector

Those who sign will pledge to deal with the negative impacts of their business operations on human rights. Some companies in the Dutch food sector already follow the OECD guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, but many are not yet doing so. This agreement will make more businesses aware of their responsibilities and how they should conduct their operations in food chains. 

Enormous

The food industry is enormous, and that is why it is so important that an agreement is signed by all stakeholders – the government, employer and employee organizations and civil society organizations. Here are a few figures. In the Netherlands alone 435,000 people work in the food sector, which has a total annual turnover of €100 billion. 40% of employment worldwide takes place within the agri-food sector. More than 50% of the money that Dutch consumers spend on food and drink is spent in supermarkets. Many of the products they buy come from other continents, such as spices, tea, coffee, avocados. Or the ingredients in food products come from other countries, such as the herbs in readymade mixes, or the palm oil in chocolate, margarine, and pasta sauces. 

Righting wrongs

Human rights violations take place throughout the entire food value chain. In Africa, Asia and South America, child labor, unsafe working conditions, excessive use of pesticides, land grabbing and displacement of small-scale farmers, and too low wages are still common. According to the ILO, child labor is most prevalent in the agri-food sector (71%) throughout the world. 37% of the land being sold worldwide is agricultural land for food crops (Worldbank, 2011). And very often it is small farmers and indigenous inhabitants who are being forced off their land to make way for large-scale production by big business. It is vital that the abuses occurring in this sector are addressed.

Due diligence

Under the agreement, businesses in the entire sector will be expected to carry out ‘due diligence’, a process whereby the consequences of human rights violations in their supply chains are identified, prevented, dealt with, and accounted for. To help companies with this, in 2017 ICCO produced a practical guide to doing responsible business, aimed at SMEs in the fruit and vegetable sector. 
At the end of the five-year agreement period we expect all companies to have integrated this process – which is a continuing activity – in their everyday business operations and to comply with the agreement. The goal of course is that businesses treat their employees responsibly, that farmers receive a fair and decent price for their products, and that no children work in the food industry. 

Sector-wide

This agreement applies to the whole of the food industry. The Federation of Dutch Grocery and Food Industry (FNLI) and the Dutch Food Retail Association (CBL) will sign on behalf of the food and retail sectors. This is a positive move, as it is not only businesses that already give priority to chain transparency and socially responsible business conduct that are signing. Because the entire sector is participating, the ‘stragglers’ are now being called upon to act too. ICCO believes that in this way a larger groundswell can be created that, alongside other established initiatives, will help value chains to become fair and transparent. 

Don’t get me wrong: this agreement is not the silver bullet that will solve all the wrongs in the food value chain. But it is an important step in the right direction. And at ICCO we are pleased and proud to be contributing to this.

Signees of the Dutch Agreement on International Responsible Business Conduct in the Food Industry: the ministries of Foreign Affairs, and Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (on behalf of the Government), FNV, CNV, CBL, KNVS, FNLI, IDH, ICCO, Woord en Daad, and Global March. 

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