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  • 04/2024
  • Theresa Heering
Focus Area

How the Food Security Standard Ensures the Right to Food

With a certificate for food security companies can assess whether human rights of employees across the supply chain are guaranteed.

A worker sorting tea leaves for further processing in a factory in Ruanda. © A'Melody Lee / World Bank

FSS certification enables companies to demonstrate their commitment to human rights due diligence through an independent verification process. The principles and criteria of the Food Security Standard (FSS) complement existing certification systems for sustainability by covering the human Right to Food in a holistic way. The most important questions:

Why do we need a Food Security Standard?

Whether avocado, tropical fruit, palm oil, coffee or rubber - when we buy these products, we often remain unaware of the living and working conditions of the farmers who produce them. Yet disregard and violation of the Right to Food are widespread, especially at the beginning of many supply chains for agricultural products from the Global South.

Around 735 million people currently suffer from hunger and over 2 billion are malnourished. Hunger and malnutrition are particularly rampant in the rural regions of poor countries. Basic human and labour rights are often not respected there. Incomes are minimal, there is no adequate medical care and social security and access to clean water cannot be guaranteed.

Consumers are increasingly demanding transparency with regard to compliance with human rights in supply chains. However, the human Right to Food has not been explicitly included in the supply chain laws that have already been passed.

Even in the case of voluntary sustainability certifications for export goods, no standard has yet comprehensively addressed the question of whether the production of agricultural businesses in the Global South is in harmony with the human Right to Food of small farmers and agricultural workers. Starving farmers and workers are a clear sign that companies are not adequately fulfilling their due diligence obligations.

This is precisely where the Food Security Standard (FSS) comes in: It is a building block that can be combined with any sustainability standard and certification system in the agricultural sector and makes it possible to closely monitor the implementation of the Right to Food.

The FSS supports supply chain actors of all sizes and types of business in demonstrating their due diligence obligations. German and European companies that fall under the supply chain laws can use it to prove that human rights are being respected. Potential risks for producers, workers, smallholders and neighbouring communities can be identified and remedial and preventive measures can be put in place. This improves their working and living conditions in the long term and strengthens their market opportunities.

How does the FSS work?

The FSS helps companies to respect the Right to Food of farmers and agricultural workers and thus practise social responsibility right at the beginning of the supply chain. The standard is suitable for all agricultural products, for food and animal feed as well as for biomass grown for energy production or for use in the cosmetics or chemical industries.

The FSS consists of five pillars, 17 principles and 35 criteria that translate the guidelines on the Right to Food of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) into practical tools. It thus reflects the multitude of factors that influence the right to adequate food.

Auditors check whether the Right to Food is guaranteed: Do workers and smallholders have enough to eat all year round? Are their wages fair? Do they have access to education, basic healthcare and legal security? Can mothers breastfeed their children during working hours? Are the drinking water sources of the neighbouring communities not affected?

The sum of the data and answers provides an accurate picture of the local food situation. If all requirements are met, farms can be certified with regard to food security and social sustainability. Producers can then prove that they have complied with their human rights due diligence obligations and the Right to Food at cultivation level.

What role does the private sector play in realising the Right to Food?

In order to realise the right to food, it is essential that governments create the necessary legal and institutional frameworks. However, one important actor is often overlooked: the private sector. This sector is not only obliged to protect human rights and contribute to their realisation. It also has very effective levers for implementing food security on farms for agricultural labourers and smallholder farmers and thus has a potential impact on surrounding communities. The FSS therefore specifically addresses the responsibility of the private sector.

Supply chain laws increase information and reporting obligations on farms.Who should pay these additional costs? Isn't this an additional hurdle for poor countries?

As a result of the various European regulations (and the German Supply Chain Act – LkSG) on due diligence obligations in supply chains, additional costs are incurred by companies that have to prove that they fulfil their obligations by means of certificates and audits. The FSS is a supplement to these certifications that offers considerable additional benefits – and in the best case minimises costs and effort through simultaneous testing with the main standard.

This creates transparency on human rights issues in supply chains that many companies previously lacked. The emerging regulations require a company to know which goods it sources from which country, who produces them and, ultimately, the conditions under which they are manufactured. This is time-consuming, but long overdue, because if you want to label your goods as sustainable, you need to know where the raw materials come from and whether relevant human rights have been respected during production.

Companies should not only have to provide evidence of the new requirements by issuing certificates, but should also contribute to the costs of measures to fulfil these requirements. This also requires cooperation across the entire supply chain.

Supply chain actors should be supported in the implementation process. In the North, the main aim is to advise companies so that they can realistically recognise risks and contribute to solutions. In the South, where resources are scarcer, producers need support so that they can fulfil the requirements.

At the centre of all efforts should be that the measures help those who are to be protected: Smallholder farmers, labourers and affected communities in exporting countries.

Production of fruit and vegetables is a sector where Food Security Standard (FSS) certification is already being applied. © Aaron Minnick | World Resources Institute

Where is the FSS already being applied and what experiences have been made so far?

Many farms are unable to fulfil the requirements of full certification straight away. For them, the Food Security Standard (FSS) offers an alternative approach – Food Security Sensitive Management (FOSSEM). It enables a gradual and customisable approach to the implementation of human rights due diligence obligations and can lead to full certification. This means that companies and smallholders who have a longer way to go to fulfil the Right to Food in its entirety are not excluded.

Demand for the FSS is increasing against the backdrop of current legislation and the standard is already being applied in practice. So far, three companies have achieved independent full certification with valid FSS certificates: a palm oil producer in Colombia and two coffee producers in Honduras and Vietnam. Preparatory assessments were most recently carried out in fruit and vegetable cultivation in Ethiopia (2023) and on a coffee farm in Uganda (2024). Prior to this, projects were initiated in Cambodia for the rubber supply chain, in Kenya for coffee, in Zambia for cotton and in Bolivia for sugar cane. Further assessments took place in 2019 in palm oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia.

In the wave of certification that is to be expected, the FSS is likely to gain in popularity and importance as part of the implementation of the new due diligence obligations as a guideline for compliance with fundamental human rights. Demand for the FSS is not only coming from the global North, but also from the South, where the benefits have obviously been recognised.

In a washing unit in northern Ruanda a worker is sorting coffee beans. © A'Melody Lee / World Bank

How can the standard be implemented in the producing countries and companies?Are there legal options?

The German Supply Chain Act, the European Supply Chain Directive and the regulation on deforestation-free supply chains clearly stipulate that internationally guaranteed rights must be respected and therefore all risks of human rights violations must be excluded. To exclude these risks, practical and easy-to-implement instruments are required, including sustainability standards. The FSS can serve as proof to exclude the risk of hunger if certification is successful.

Who developed the FSS?

The FSS was developed in 2017 as a joint project between theCentre for Development Research (University of Bonn, Germany),Welthungerhilfe (Bonn, Germany)andWWF (World Wide Fund for Nature, Berlin, Germany)and is funded by theFederal Ministry of Food and Agriculture via the Agency for Renewable Resources .

The FSS criteria, indicators and associated tools were successfully tested in cooperation with local producers and international certification systems (ISCC - International Sustainability & Carbon Certification, RSPO - Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, Cotton made in Africa, UTZ/Rainforest Alliance) as part of pilot audits in food-insecure regions of Africa, Latin America and Asia. Today, Welthungerhilfe and Meo Carbon Solutions, a Cologne-based consultancy firm for environmental and sustainability issues, are jointly implementing the FSS.

Theresa Heering Policy & External Relations

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