Whither European Biotechnology

The comparative advantages and disadvantages of European producers may explain past dynamics of European political economy and thus the policies that are in place today, including IP over biological subject matter. What, based on this political economy framework, might be expected of future policies? The main possibilities can be summarized within three different scenarios.

Scenario 1: 'GM-free' Europe

On the premise that history matters, recent stigmatization of transgenic foods becomes institutionalized under European science and technology policies, which in turn informs and reinforces the preferences of European consumers, resulting in zero-tolerance policies and a significant non-tariff barrier to competition from biotechnology. Under these conditions, European firms will not see sufficient incentives to catch up in biotechnology innovation. Since no significant champions will arise within Europe to strengthen protections, weak and limited IPRs will remain in biotechnology subject matters. This in turn helps to keep innovation and competition for crop protection markets - those of both Europe and major commodity exporters around the world - more firmly in the chemicals arena. This strategy may turn out as a success, in fact, if any risks of biotechnology become established through scientific evidence or an indisputable biosafety crisis arises. In such a case, technologies such as new generation pesticides or advanced breeding programmes may overtake transgenics and agricultural biotechnology as it is known today.

Scenario 2: Agricultural trading blocs

The conditions follow a middle road, with stringent, yet somewhat permissive biotechnology policies maintained in Europe, including labelling requirements and lower tolerances for traces of transgenic material in conventional (non-transgenic) products. Given the costs of segregation and identity preservation, countries that are major agricultural producers and their commodity organizations will align their biotechnology policies to accommodate their major trading partner, predominantly negotiated through bilateral agreements and effectively resulting in a global pattern of agricultural trading blocs. Current international IP agreements would evolve to reflect the different trading regimes, with continued weak agricultural biotechnology IPRs on selective biotechnology subject matters within the European-aligned bloc versus stronger IPRs within the US-aligned bloc. The larger developing countries - China, India and Brazil - will set their internal biotechnology and IP policies to optimize the development of their own agricultural biotechnologies to feed their populations as a first priority and then to export wherever possible as a secondary priority. This would mean a continuation of the current status quo in Europe, which could persist for some time.

Scenario 3: Catch up and product differentiation

As a third scenario, transgenic technology begins generating products that significantly enhance consumer well-being while clearly benefiting the environment, such that European consumer attitudes soften and reverse. European retailers will become interested in developing the market. European seed and chemical firms will invest more into their own biotechnology R&D and seek to acquire technologies from abroad. The conservative policy regime would have simply bought them time to catch up in biotechnology. They might then enter the European market with products designed to be looked upon more favourably by European consumers, addressing their greatest concerns and environmentally differentiating products - marketing them as something new and positive under monikers like EuroGenes, Green Genes or M├ęthode BioOrganique, attempting to sidestep or overcome the outmoded public image associated with GMOs. As European innovative capacity increases, European champions for biotechnology policies, including patent protection, will emerge, and current regulations will be adjusted accordingly. European farmers will start to grow GM crops and may even find ways to leverage funding under the CAP for environmental stewardship utilizing these crops.

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