Building a Transatlantic Biotech Partnership

Nigel Purvis
Nigel Purvis Former Brookings Expert

September 1, 2004

Reproduced by permission of
Issues in Science and Technology (Fall 2004).

The United States and Europe continue to turn up the heat in their long-simmering biotech stew. In May 2003, the Bush administration initiated a challenge within the World Trade Organization (WTO) to Europe’s five-year de facto moratorium on approving new genetically modified (GM) seeds for planting in Europe. Although Europe subsequently approved a small number of new GM imports, the United States maintains that Europe’s markets remain closed to U.S. farmers. In April 2004, the European Union (EU) implemented new regulations that require mandatory labeling of all GM food and food products sold in Europe, despite U.S. claims that labeling is costly, unworkable, and unscientific. Further conflict seems inevitable.

Yet as ugly as the GM food fight remains, it may well be just the beginning of a potentially much larger cultural conflict over biotechnology. Scientific advances soon will force the international community to confront the ethical, economic, environmental, and governance challenges presented by human biotechnology (including cloning and research on embryos), the creation of transgenic animals by mixing DNA from different species, and a raft of other almost unimaginable developments. Just as the United States and the European Union have chosen different paths on GM food, they might do so on biotechnology in general. The results could stall trade liberalization and economic growth, derail international efforts to manage the biotech revolution wisely, and erode further the shared sense that people in the United States and Europe have common values, interests, and objectives. All this, in turn, could undermine the very notion of a transatlantic community.

Although these risks are real, broader fallout between the United States and Europe over biotechnology is avoidable. Both sides must strengthen international cooperation on biotech science, establish an international body for setting biotech standards, and work toward a global consensus by addressing the needs of developing nations. Minimizing international conflict over the unfolding biotech revolution is possible, but only if action begins now.