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GMOs and
human rights

The right to adequate food

The right to adequate food implies access to food that is nutritious, safe and culturally acceptable

- FAO/20636/e. Yeves

Some ethical aspects of GMOs fall within the context of the right to adequate food, which is derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the 1996 World Food Summit, the Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action reaffirmed the right of everyone to adequate food. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Commission on Human Rights have both addressed the right to food in the follow-up to the World Food Summit. In particular, the following quotations related to the right to adequate food are considered to be highly relevant to the analyses of GMOs contained in this paper.

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights considers that the core content of the right to adequate food implies:

"The availability of food in a quantity and quality sufficient to satisfy the dietary needs of individuals, free from adverse substances, and acceptable within a given culture;
The accessibility of such food in ways that are sustainable and that do not interfere with the enjoyment of other human rights."

General Comment 12, paragraph 8 (E/C.12/1999/5)

The Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights of the UN Commission on Human Rights has stated:

"... State obligations require active protection against other, more assertive or aggressive subjects - more powerful economic interests, such as protection against fraud, against unethical behaviour in trade and contractual relations, against the marketing and dumping of hazardous or dangerous products. This protective function of the State is widely used and is the most important aspect of State obligations with regard to economic, social, and cultural rights, similar to the role of the State as protector of civil and political rights;"


Other important human rights principles that could bear upon GMOs, although not included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are the rights to informed choice and to democratic participation.

The right to informed choice

The existence of GMOs raises the issue of the right to informed choice, which derives from the ethical concept of autonomy of individuals. This principle can be applied, for example, in the debate on labelling food derived from GMOs to ensure that consumers know what they are consuming and are able to make informed decisions. Informed choice and resulting actions require access to information and resources. Consumers do not all have the same access to information and resources to make informed decisions about GMOs. Particularly in developing countries, the very poor (both women and men) may lack the most basic information to make decisions that may affect their health and capacity to sustain themselves. Appropriate methods to reach the least educated, the poorest and the most disadvantaged groups should form part of any strategy to inform the public so that individuals are able to choose according to their needs.

The right to democratic participation

The right to democratic participation addresses the need for justice and equity, which are of major concern in the context of GMO-related decisions. Principles of justice may include gender equality, need, accountability, liability, and fair and democratic procedures. Many young people, particularly the poor and powerless, have little education and no social entry point to influence decisions about GMOs. They need to be given every opportunity to participate in the debate concerning both the impact of GMOs on their lives and livelihoods and the potential benefits that may arise from the development and use of such products. They should also have the right to choose the product that best suits their needs. Of concern is the fact that future generations have no voice or vote in decisions taken on GMOs today, which means that ways must be found to ensure that their interests are taken into account. Options must be kept open so as to enable future generations to meet their specific needs, including those deriving from unpredictable environmental changes.

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