unctad.org | Policy Dialogue of the Science and Technology Diplomacy Initiative on Biotechnology Applications and Trade
Statement by Mr. Rubens Ricupero, Secretary-General of UNCTAD
Policy Dialogue of the Science and Technology Diplomacy Initiative on Biotechnology Applications and Trade
10 Mar 2003

Ladies and gentlemen,

Science today has become a test case in international negotiations at the WTO involving science and technology. Negotiators require greater understanding of the scientific underpinnings of trade issues. They will be called upon to interpret not only the economic, legal and social impacts of international agreements but also the scientific knowledge upon which they are based. Controversy over transgenic products, for example, has stepped up the demand for product labelling, but labelling creates its own problems: it can increase production costs, amounting to another form of regulatory protectionism, and it can result in the undeserved stigmatization of labelled products.

For developing countries, navigating through these trade-related issues is a daunting task. First of all, many international agreements are highly technical and scientific in nature. As the science becomes more sophisticated, so do the relevant regulatory and governance regimes. Secondly, determining the benefits, opportunities and risks of many of the multilateral agreements, such as TRIPS, in terms of access to drugs, food security, investment and technology transfer is difficult for countries with limited resources. Thirdly, any barriers that effectively deny developing countries access to markets in industrialized nations will affect technology transfer, investment and poverty alleviation in general.

The Science and Technology Diplomacy Initiative, established by UNCTAD in collaboration with Harvard University´s Science, Technology and Innovation Program, is in my opinion an important first step in meeting these challenges. The Initiative aims to strengthen the capacity of trade diplomats, especially from developing countries, to participate more effectively and to make informed decisions in the negotiating process. This morning´s policy dialogue on biotechnology, convened jointly by UNCTAD and the United Nations University´s Institute of Advanced Studies, will address some of these issues.

Biotechnology has penetrated all areas of human endeavour and transformed the way life is perceived. It has moved from the laboratory to the doctor´s office and the dinner table. Its impact is being felt in four key areas:

  1. Agriculture, in the form of increased yields, reduced use of pesticides and tillage;
  2. Medicine, in the form of drug and vaccine development, diagnostic and genetic profiling;
  3. Industry, in the form of energy and water consumption and waste generation; and
  4. Environment, in the form of recyclable materials such as bioplastics, recovery of wastelands and conservation of endangered species.

Science is increasingly being used as a tool for regulating trade in a number of areas and products. As you know, the WTO was established to facilitate trade through the elimination of barriers to promote global wealth. It does, however, allow restrictions based on health and safety through sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures. Biotechnology has also generated a debate about the need for regulating science and trade. Some of the areas where the two domains come together are as follows:

  1. Setting standards (such as those for industrial and home units and systems);
  2. Establishing safety measures (e.g., to reduce human, plant, animal and environment risks, and/or as part of the SPS agreement);
  3. Management and monitoring (for example, of the risks or actual outbreak of disease); and
  4. Settlement of trade disputes (e.g., technical barriers to trade).

Agreed standards of regulation and management have to be maintained. In the area of biotechnology these measures are still in their infancy, and consensus has yet to be established. International agreement is required on such issues as:

  1. Safety of genetically modified living organisms;
  2. The tracing and labelling of genetically modified products and services;
  3. The free movement of GMOs and their products;
  4. Intellectual property rights applicable to plants, animals and products of biotechnology; and Access to genetic resources and fair sharing of benefits.

There are four key questions to be debated here today:

  1. The precautionary approach as an optional policy tool
    Countries can ban a product based simply on the lack of evidence that it is safe. Normally, such bans would instead be based on the absence of evidence that a product is harmful.

  2. Differences in product definitions
    Those who perceive transgenic products as fundamentally different insist on labelling and strict regulation, while those who think that such products are identical to similar but non-transgenic products do not demand labelling.

  3. Increased turnover of technology in an uncertain policy environment
    While technology is changing very quickly, regulators are faced with the challenge of risk assessment and management. All countries have failed to approve transgenic fish even though there is no evidence of potential harm. This difficulty is faced by both developed and developing countries.

  4. Public concerns and regulatory regimes
    In an age defined by the technological transformation of life, public participation and awareness of science, technology and trade issues has also grown. This presents yet another challenge to policy makers.

To help us understand these and other issues related to biotechnology and trade, we are honoured to have with us today three eminent individuals, all of whom possess in-depth knowledge and experience in both scientific and regulatory issues of biotechnology. I am happy to welcome them to our gathering.


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