a farmer working in the field

COVID-19: Rights and Resilience in Our Food Systems

Amanda Lyons, Executive Director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota Law School, writes on the widespread disruptions to our food systems and the human-rights implications.

COVID-19 is a wakeup call for food systems that must be heeded. IPES-Food

Many of us have seen dramatic changes in our food habits: where and how we can shop for food, what items are available and how much they cost, how much money we have available to spend on food, how we cook and how often, where and with whom we eat, what we waste or don’t.

For some, the experience of anxiety and insecurity over how to get food and whether it will last is new. For many others, it is familiar.

Food Crisis

The fallout of the COVID-19 public health crisis on our food systems is already noticeable, and the predictions are dire. Our increasingly consolidated and monolithic food sources have proven fallible, and workers in the system – generally hidden – are being seen as among the most vulnerable in our society. The food crisis parallel to COVID-19 will play out uniquely in different places and across different communities. Yet the universality of the disruptions offers a unique moment for reflecting on the policies that shape our food systems and for envisioning how to better align them with human rights obligations.

The crisis has exposed the vulnerability of our food systems and the underlying food insecurity, poverty, and exploitation in our communities.

In the United States, we have seen farmers dumping milk and eggs, ploughing crops back into the ground, and euthanizing livestock as the food service markets collapses and processing plants close. At the same time, demand at food banks soars and far exceeds resources, as donations from corporate sources dry up. Movement restrictions are having particularly devastating effects in rural food deserts where only a few grocery stores serve tens of thousands. In the first days of the crises, one of the most urgent tasks for our public schools was to divert school buses from transporting children to delivering food for those families who usually rely on the schools for the full and nutritious meals they are not able to otherwise secure.

Insecurity For Workers In The Food System

In a terrible irony, the people who work along our food system are among those who are most insecure – farm workers, small-scale farmers, processing plant workers, truck drivers, grocery and food service workers, gig delivery workers. Long under-valued and under-protected, they are only now being acknowledged as essential workers in the public consciousness.

Meat and poultry processing plants have been among the major sites of concentrated outbreaks, with several shutting down completely. President Trump, invoking the Defense Production Act, declared meat processing plants critical infrastructure and ordered them to remain open. In press coverage, corporations are being assured they will not be liable for health outcomes, and employees who do not return to work at open plants out of fear of contracting the virus will be ineligible for the unemployment protections. Overall, the situation has revealed in new and startling ways the economic realities, health risks, and lack of safety net that these workers face and the precarity on which the current food systems depend.

At the global level, the Chief of the World Food Program warned the Security Council that the world is on the brink of “hunger pandemic” and a “humanitarian and food crisis catastrophe.”


As just one example, in Colombia families and neighborhoods facing hunger have made their plight visible in a unique way. People in marginalized urban neighborhoods and rural zones have begun to wave red flags (shirts, rags) in their windows to alert passers-by that those living inside are going hungry. This is at once a practical way to enable solidarity among neighbors as well as a visible manifestation and protest of the deep inequality and absence of the state (and private sector). People turning to the streets to demand the food aid that President Duque promised have faced violent confrontations with the police.

Yet hunger – in the many places and ways it is manifesting – is not a necessary consequence of the pandemic. It is flows from the inequalities and marginalization in our communities and world and from the vulnerability and failings of our predominant food systems.

Addressing food insecurity in our responses to COVID-19 is not only a pressing humanitarian challenge but a priority for human rights and social justice.

The Right To Food

A human rights lens helps us see and name the manifold injustices in our food system and the root causes of systemic food insecurity. Importantly, it also offers guideposts for envisioning policies that would advance more just and sustainable systems.

The human rights framework speaks to many dimensions of the right to food, food insecurity, and food systems, including conflict and violence, economic sanctions, trade agreements, austerity measures, social protection floors, discrimination, and the regulation and accountability for the operations of corporate actors.

Civil society and social movements have increasingly turned to human rights mechanisms and other multilateral fora to decry the wide range of negative human rights impacts that stem from unmitigated State support for the consolidation of large agribusiness. The categories of rights violations and deprivations reported include those relating to environmental degradation, diet and public health, working conditions, rights of human rights defenders, and the livelihood and cultural survival of small-scale farmers and peasants.

As a result of this activism, there is an emerging body of international protections and guidance on good governance to promote the diversity, resilience, and sustainability of food systems, including the special recognition of the individual and collective rights of peasants.

In December 2018, in a culmination of nearly 20 years of activism led by La Via Campesina and partners, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. This builds on important work across many multilateral fora, including the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, CEDAW’s General Comment 34 on the rights of rural women, the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women, the GA declaration of the UN Decade of the Family Farmer (2019-2028), a series of key Voluntary Guidelines from the FAO, and the inclusion under SDG 2 (zero hunger) target 2.3 of a focus on:

small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land.

States’ Obligations

Taken together, there is a compelling recognition of State obligations to guarantee the human rights of peasants to land, security, education, access to justice, and participation in policies that may affect them. At the same time, this emerging consensus emphasizes that the guarantee and promotion of these rights are instrumental to foster diverse and sustainable food systems as well as the other to advance aims pursued at the national and international levels under the headings of conservation, sustainable development, biological diversity, hunger eradication, and peace-building.

In our individual and community responses to the current COVID-19 crisis, there are many signs of people reflecting on the fragility of our systems and turning to slower, healthier, more sustainable food practices. In the United States, there is a much discussed surge in baking and gardening, bringing recollections of the WWII “victory gardens.” In Colombia, in response to having no market for their crops a peasant family has turned to YouTube to offer to teach others how to work the land in a first video that has quickly gone viral.

These are of course not the scalable solutions we need for our local, regional, national, and international challenges. However, they do reflect the fact that we are all experiencing changes in our food patterns and many are learning and thinking about food systems, resilience, sustenance, and equality for the first time.

With the increased visibility of the pervasive food insecurity and the injustices within the food systems, this is a unique historic moment to rethink in light existing State human rights obligations the policies that create and sustain them.

As is repeated in other human rights circles, policies adopted in times of crises have staying power. We must be wary of responses that will only entrench the practices that have brought us to these multiple crises. In addition to the massive efforts that are needed to guarantee the right to food for communities around the world throughout this pandemic, we must also envision how we wish to emerge. The human rights framework – and the knowledge, proposals, and consensus emerging from civil society engagement there – is rich terrain for us to begin to advance more just and sustainable alternatives.

For further reading:

-       IFES Food: COVID-19 and the Crisis in Food Systems

Best regards,

Amanda Lyons, Executive Director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Minnesota Law School.

This is a series of updates regarding the Coronavirus from Human Rights Experts – read more here

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