Food and the Law – Global News Roundup – June Edition

Recent news from around the globe related to (or with implications for) the intersection of food, the law, and human rights:

  • In Brazil, the Superior Tribunal of Justice (the highest appellate court for non-constitutional federal questions) held that a decision in the class action lawsuit brought by Brazilian farmers in Rio Grande do Sul against Monsanto would have national implications. The suit revolves around Monsanto’s royalty scheme, under which producers who replant harvested Monsanto-patented soy crops (i.e., as seed) have to pay royalties to Monsanto. The Brazilian court acknowledged that, under its holding and depending on the finding on the merits, Monsanto could owe up to $7.5 billion to farmers. Monsanto noted that it would continue using its royalty collection system until the courts render a final decision on the merits.
  • Also in Brazil, world leaders convened at Rio+20 (formally, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development), agreeing on an outcome document that, among other things, reaffirmed the right to food, as well as noted the importance of the right to water and sanitation. However, while the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food welcomed the Outcome Document’s inclusion of the right to food, international human rights groups argued that countries had undermined efforts to include strong human rights commitments in the document and failed to ensure that the document would lead to meaningful change.
  • In Ethiopia, HRW stated that the government is forcibly displacing indigenous communities without adequate compensation in order to develop state-run sugar plantations. This displacement will deeply affect the communities’ food security and livelihoods.
  • In Kenya, several groups (the Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Center for International Environmental Law, and the Katiba Institute) intervened as amici curiae before the High Court of Kenya in a case challenging the Lamu Port – Southern Sudan – Ethiopia Transport Project. The plaintiffs state that the project violates and threatens to violate various human rights; amici curiae argued that the proposed project would cause Kenya to violate a number of binding human rights obligations, including the rights to food and water.
  • It was a busy month in the United States:
    The Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill, with a vote of 64 in favor, 35 opposed. Despite an open letter to Congress from food justice leaders, the bill that was voted through, in the words of the New York Times, “takes a disproportionate whack from environmental programs, needlessly trims food stamps and does not fundamentally alter the program’s bias toward relatively well-off growers of big crops like corn, wheat and soybeans.”
    –> Numerous amendments to the bill had been proposed, including Senator Feinstein’s, which focused on creating federal welfare standards for hens on egg farms. That amendment, which was supported by the egg industry and the Humane Society but criticized by other animal rights advocates, was dropped.
    –> New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg submitted a proposal to the city’s Board of Health banning the sale of soda and other sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces. The Board will hold the first public hearing in July; if the Board approves the ban, it could take effect early next year. The mayor of Cambridge, Massachusetts followed by proposing a similar ban.
    –> The Supreme Court handed down rulings that, while not directly related to food, have important implications for the intersection of food, the law, and human rights. The Court struck down a Montana state law limiting corporate political spending, thus declining to re-examine its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which held that corporations and unions are not limited in their political spending. This ruling means that large corporations – including agribusiness corporations – can continue to exert undue influence in the US political system.
    –> In another decision, the Supreme Court struck down certain parts of the 2010 Arizona immigration law, but upheld the part of the law that requires police to demand immigration papers from persons they have stopped whom they suspect of being undocumented. This has implications for other states’ efforts to restrict immigration, though challenges to those laws are also making their way through the federal court system. Anti-immigration laws have outsized impacts on farmworkers and agriculture in the US, as the vast majority of farmworkers are immigrants. Indeed, farmers in states that have passed strict anti-immigration laws have had difficulty finding sufficient labor.
    –> The Court also mostly upheld the US healthcare overhaul law. This has important ramifications for food workers in the US, who often have no access to health insurance.
    –> Organizations and experts filed amici briefs in support of plaintiffs in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, stating that, yes, the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) applies “to conduct that took place within the territory of a foreign state.” The US Department of Justice also submitted an amicus brief arguing, unfortunately, that the ATS should not apply in Kiobel. The State Department did not sign the DOJ’s brief, possibly signaling that it does not agree with the DOJ’s position. To date, the ATS has proved an important tool for holding corporations accountable for human rights abuses. The Supreme Court will likely provide a decision in Kiobel early next year; it is possible that the Court could severely restrict applicability of the ATS.

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