Thomas BernauerInternational Trade Conflict

Thomas Bernauer, ‘Introduction and Summary’ in Thomas Bernauer, Genes, Trade and Regulation: The Seeds of Conflict in Food Biotechnology (Princeton University Press, 2003) pp. 1-21.


Thomas Bernauer is a professor of political science at ETH Zurich based at the Center for Comparative and International Studies. In his research he focuses upon international environmental, economic and security problems having published widely in these areas over his long career. The debate on genetically modified foods has become a prominent feature in the political landscape since they first appeared on the market in the mid-1990s. In this contemporary field, science and politics have become intertwined and a staunch opposition has fought against the introduction of GM crops in Europe in contrast to a ready acceptance in the United States. Bernauer’s award winning book Genes, Trade and Regulation: The Seeds of Conflict in Food Biotechnology applies theories of political economy to explain the divergence of opinions on the two sides of the Atlantic and the accompanying regulatory systems.


The text is the Introduction and Summary of Thomas Bernauer’s award winning book Genes, Trade and Regulation. The chapter presents the current debate over agricultural biotechnology and outlines the main challenges the area faces. Bernauer argues that global regulatory polarization and trade conflicts have exacerbated already existing domestic controversies over agricultural biotechnology and have thrown the latter into a deep crisis. Bernauer contrasts the restrictive regulatory constraints on agri-biotechnology in the European Union with the open-market approach of the US, describing the phenomenon as ‘regulatory polarization’. The phenomenon fuelled by public opinion and different institutional structures has created tension in the world trading system where conflicts over regulatory differences have increased since genetically engineered first appeared on international markets. Bernauer concludes that current private and public policies, manifest as excessive regulation by the former and aggressive tactics by the latter, are not effective in overcoming this polarization or conducive for establishing a sustainable market for genetically modified products.

The continuation of regulatory polarization and trade conflict is detrimental to agri-biotechnology’s prospects for three reasons: (i) it increases fragmentation of international agricultural markets implying reducing market access which discourages further investment. (ii) Trade conflicts over differing agri-biotech regulations are very difficult to solve, particularly within the WTO. This can overburden international institutions and negatively affect efforts to liberalize global trade in agricultural goods and services. (iii) Slow down public sector support for agri-biotechnology particularly if richer nations don’t include biotechnology in their  development assistance programs.

Bernauer explores two theoretical perspectives to explain regulatory polarization: the first is a struggle between international groups within the EU and the US with mobilisation higher among environmental and consumer groups in the EU and higher among producers in the US. He also explores the effects of a federalist system and finds a ratcheting up of regulation in the EU to bring countries into line with the most risk adverse countries. The system in the US makes this less likely a similar effect only likely to occur through ‘trading-up’ should large states impose stricter conditions forcing producers in smaller states to comply in order not to suffer from the loss of markets. Finally, Bernauer makes several suggestions for policy reforms to avoid regulatory polarization: establishing strong regulatory authorities backed by robust liability laws, market-driven product differentiation based on mandatory labelling of GE products, and support for developing countries.


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