Topic summary: Biotechnology and globalisation

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Biotechnology and globalisation

Published November 2016

Biotechnology refers to any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products and processes for specific uses, for example in the fields of agriculture, pharmacology and bioengineering. The interplay between the phenomenon of globalisation and the biotechnology industry raises significant ethical and policy issues.

Are there recent scientific, legal or social developments?

The costs of international transportation and communication are declining, and there is a progressive dismantling of barriers to trade and capital mobility. These make possible the outsourcing and relocating of research and development, and foreign investment in national biotechnology concerns.

There are many examples of biotechnology stakeholders collaborating on a global scale. The European Federation of Biotechnology and Global Biotech Revolution for example, are two non-profit organisations aiming to connect biotech think-tanks, industrial leaders, researchers and young bio-leaders to ensure the life sciences are used in a safe, sustainable and beneficial way and to grow a ‘global bio-economy’ through collaborative ventures. In October 2016 the European Commission published a report recommending immediate action on the creation of a European Open Science Cloud to allow researchers and science and technology professionals to store, share and re-use their data across disciplines and borders.

Are there complex ethical issues?

There is a recognised positive moral value in developing biotechnologies to avoid or alleviate harms, and to increase human welfare and well-being. Biotechnologies offer the possibility of providing solutions to some of the key dilemmas that have emerged out of globalisation such as how to address food security (e.g. with genetically engineered food crops) and energy security (e.g. with biofuels). As highlighted by the Council’s report on emerging biotechnologies, decisions that shape or constrain the development of biotechnologies have to take into account key values in public ethics such as those of equity, solidarity and sustainability. Concerns have been raised that the benefits and opportunities of globalisation have been largely limited to a relatively small number of wealthier countries, whilst the costs have largely been borne by developing and poorer countries. Market incentives are also such that biotechnology developments tend to address disorders of most concern among rich populations and neglect conditions that affect the poor in developing countries. Using populations in less economically developed countries as sources of inexpensive labour and as clinically naive patient populations raises important questions surrounding both consent and exploitation. The sustainability of biotechnologies will require avoiding significant or irreversible depletion of non-renewable natural resources or damage to ecosystems or the environment. This may be even harder to guarantee in a globalised marketplace. Not all advances in biotechnology are fed from the developed to the developing world however and there are easily accessible, rapidly advancing biotechnologies in the developing world with international customers (e.g. reproductive tourism).

Is there a potential policy impact?

At the UN Millennium Summit in 2002, ensuring that globalisation becomes a positive force for all was declared a central challenge. A potential focus for policy impact in this area is in respect to the global responsibilities of corporations developing new biotechnologies, such as encouraging private companies to incorporate an ethical approach to their activities. For example, the UN Global Compact is a voluntary initiative that seeks to promote responsible corporate citizenship so that businesses help to respond to the challenges of globalisation. Some question how effective these voluntary ethical codes can be, and whether more regulatory control is needed.

Is it a subject of public concern?

There have been important political developments which could be seen as a backlash against globalisation and the increased flows of goods and workers across borders. It was a factor in the British vote to leave the EU, the rise of anti-establishment political parties across Europe (Podemos in Spain, the Five Star movement in Italy and more) and in Donald Trump’s criticism of American trade agreements in the US election campaign. Some members of the public also have concerns that the fruits of global economic growth are not fairly shared with less developed countries.

Is consideration timely?

The 2016 US presidential election has been at the centre of a rising tide of disquiet against free trade and globalisation. The 2016 European and Global Biotech week took place in September and included a record number of countries working across 4 continents.

Can the Council offer a distinctive contribution?

This is a huge topic involving an array of issues related to globalisation and economics, and so any contribution by the Council would need to be carefully focussed. One possible avenue of work could be a follow-up activity linked to the emerging biotechnologies report, with a focus on the global responsibilities of biotechnology corporations.

Possible future work topics

This is one of the topics that have been suggested as possible project areas for further investigation by the Council. These topic summaries do not aim for comprehensiveness; rather, they are intended to sign-post some of the key considerations and to provide a starting point for discussion. Each summary includes links to relevant publications on the topic.

Possible future work topics are selected and/or revised regularly, following discussions among members of the Future Work Sub-Group and the Council. This set of topic summaries was published in November 2016.

Previous work

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