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Journal Article

IDS Bulletin 35.1

Whose Rules Rule? Development and the Global Governance of Biotechnology

Published on 1 January 2004

Few case studies highlight as clearly the intersection of globalisation with poverty as the role of biotechnology in the developing world.

The “gene” revolution in agricultural biotechnology is being driven by some of the most powerful multinational companies in the global economy, including such giants as Monsanto and Du Pont. The absence of effective regulatory frameworks and safeguards for monitoring the handling and use of biotechnologies brings into sharp relief the limits of state capacity, while the pace of technological development in the sector far outstrips the ability of legal frameworks to manage its consequences. The politics of aid, trade and redistribution that modern biotechnology has given rise to, amid claims about the ability of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to feed the world, make it a pressing development issue on the agendas of governments and global institutions. What can these institutions do to manage the technology in a way which benefits the poor? How, in constructing mechanisms of international governance to regulate the social and environmental consequences of modern biotechnology, can they ensure that the food security of the poor is safeguarded?

At first sight, it would seem unreasonable to expect the activities of international institutions to have much consequence for the lives of the rural poor in the developing world. Yet, as donors and academics are increasingly emphasising, global institutions in many ways mediate the relationship between globalisation and poverty, of which food insecurity is one manifestation. Trade rules and environmental regulations that bear directly upon the rights and responsibilities of governments impinging in positive and negative ways upon their “food sovereignty” are now in place. The ability of developing country governments in particular, to make pro-poor policy choices in agriculture is being circumscribed by a combination of rules on agricultural and food trade policy and on intellectual property rights. These rules define the conditions upon which countries can prohibit or restrict the import of certain agricultural products, or promote or access specific technologies in order to address food security needs.

These issues formed the background to a project on ‘Globalisation and the International Governance of Modern Biotechnology’, some of the findings of which are summarised in this article. The project sought to examine the relationships between, for example, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CBP) and other international organisations addressing biotechnology, as well as the interaction between these bodies and national governments in developing countries. It also sought to identify where and how the agribiotech industry is influencing policy processes both at the national and international level. The aim was to identify constraints upon national policy makers in formulating policy on biotechnology that accords with obligations to international organisations and meets the food security needs of poorer farming communities; to explore the role and limitations of national regulation of biotechnology in the context of globalisation and to consider the extent to which international institutions can supplement the ability of governments to promote food security. The focus was on transgenic crop biotechnologies, which have generated most concern about their potential environmental, health and socio-economic impacts. Our interest was in the implications of efforts to regulate these impacts through global regimes on trade, food and the environment on national level efforts in India and Kenya to combat food insecurity.

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This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.1 (2004) Whose Rules Rule? Development and the Global Governance of Biotechnology

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