GMOS in the Global Political Economy


 Christopher Chase-Dunn, Armando Lara-Millan and Richard Neimeyer

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California-Riverside

            Science and technologies both have consequences for, and are affect by, the global political economy. Though both the sciences that enable genetic modifications of organisms and the commercial activities that emerge from the application of these new techniques are unique in many respects, they also share important characteristics with older innovations and business sectors, so that a historical and comparative approach to “new lead industries” can shed light on the present and the future of GMOs in the global political economy.

            Obviously both the overall rates of economic growth and the spatial distribution of economic growth have consequences for the funding of basic science and the development of commercial applications. So biotechnology will be slowed or speeded up depending on the ebbs and floods of the global political economy over the next few decades. Stable governance and growth will be favorable, while stagnation and conflict will slow down biotech science and commercialization.

            And biotechnology may itself have an impact on the trajectories and patterns of international development, cooperation, competition and conflict. Here we may learn from comparing biotechnology to earlier new lead industries – e.g. steam power, electrification, information technology and nuclear energy. New lead industries have stimulated waves of economic development by fundamentally transforming processes of production. And they have played an important role in the rise and fall of leading (hegemonic) national economies such as the United Kingdom of Great Britain in the nineteenth century and the United States in the twentieth century. One important question about biotechnology concerns the role that it will play in a possible future revitalization of U.S. economic hegemony in the next decades.

    Much of the recent attention paid to the international aspects of agricultural and medical biotechnology impacts has focused on North/South issues about the patenting of genomes and the effects of the industrialization of agriculture on peasantries in the Third World. But there is also a North/North aspect that has emerged with resistance in Japan, the United Kingdom and Europe to genetically modified foods. Significant popular resistance to genetically modified foods could be an important factor affecting the profitability of food-producing biotechnology. The perception of significant risks, as in the nuclear power industry, can influence both science and commerce. And to the extent that biotechnology is perceived as new technology in which the U.S. has a significant advantage, anti-U.S. sentiment may fuel further resistance to biotechnology. Thus can geopolitics be an important factor.

        It is commonly believed that the high start-up costs of biotechnology research and development should retard the emergence of competitors. This has been seen as part of the explanation for why biotechnology research, development and commercialization in Europe and Japan have lagged behind the U.S.  But there have been some developments that cast doubt on these characterizations. The Peoples’ Republic of China began a substantial state-sponsored initiative in biotechnology in the 1980s and many important products of this program have been implemented in Chinese agriculture on a huge scale, with allegedly great beneficial effects. Singapore has also succeeded in establishing a successful biotechnology sector by targeted investments and the importation of scientific talent from abroad. These start-ups imply that entry into the biotechnology industry is not as restricted as had been assumed, and that competition for shares of world demand for the products of biotechnology will speed up the product cycle, making it more difficult for particular countries, including the U.S., to garner technological rents for very long.

            In the long run there is little doubt that biotechnology science and commerce will provide useful outcomes, but the coming decades may see increasing disputes about biotechnology that will have important consequences for both science and business. Business cycles and contentions for world leadership will be important contextual factors, and biotechnology may itself play an important part in these global processes.