As trade in biotech products grows, restrictive sanitary and phytosanitary measures as well as restrictions aimed at the protection of public morals turn into a salient issue in international trade law. The WTO Agreement establishes strict standards for scientifically sound risk assessment and risk management, leaving a limited corridor for the application of the precautionary principle. By contrast, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and EU Law provide a broad corridor for social and economic considerations, which might fuel new controversies, e.g. as to genetically-modified crops. The interaction of these standards triggered international disputes, such as EC-Biotech before the WTO Dispute Settlement Body. Ethical debates surrounding biotech products might additionally pose new challenges to the interpretation and application of the GATT general exceptions. Beyond the WTO, new regional trade agreements have included provisions specifically tailored to address biotech products.
Biodiversity is the source of genetic resources capable of being used in industrial processes. While the exploitation of genetic recourses has been dominated by industrialized countries, the world’s most biodiverse regions correspond to developing or emerging economies. The Convention on Biological Diversity has sought to strike a balance between the ‘global north’ and the ‘global south’ in this sensitive area, seeking to counter the unfair appropriation of genetic resources. In this vein, it introduces mechanisms of access and benefit sharing (ABS). The Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing facilitates the implementation of these mechanisms. Further steps towards a fair use of genetic resources have been taken in the context of the FAO. The FAO Seed Treaty seeks to line the FAO regime for plant genetic resources with the Convention on Biological Diversity. In this context, the rights of indigenous peoples are an important concern which includes the protection of traditional indigenous knowledge.