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Analysis of genetically modified food induced international trade law issues.


Transgenosis refers to transferring one or more exogenous genes into a specific organism using genetic engineering technology to generate corresponding products such as polypeptide or protein effectively. Food which is produced taking genetically modified organisms as the raw materials is called genetically modified food. (1) As to the laws and regulations about the technical barrier to trade of genetically modified food, there is Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, TBT Agreement, SPS Agreement, etc. internationally, and countries such as Europe, America, Japan and Russia formulated laws that are applicable to their own conditions. Due to the uncertainty of genetically modified food, relevant law systems about it is conflictive internationally, the recognition and attitude of different countries on genetically modified food is polarized, (2) and the legal issues concerning the international trade of genetically modified food has become more prominent. Scholars from China and other countries have made many studied on it. Pillarisetti JR and Radel K pointed out that, the insufficient rules for genetically modified food in WTO will cause serious and irreversible risks to global organic and bio-dynamic agriculture (3). Meng Yu, (4) a Chinese scholar, proposed that, the issues involved in genetically modified food are issues concerning a scientific field more than legal issues, there is no unified recognition on genetically modified products currently and WTO has not given positive reply to the problem because the safety of genetically modified products has not been verified scientifically in the current stage, which makes different countries and regions adjust measures to local conditions in the supervision and control of genetically modified products. This study aims at analyzing the current situation and development trend of the international trade of genetically modified food and propose countermeasures which needs to be adopted in the current international trade environment for the problems existing in the international trade laws for genetically modified food.



Genetically modified food refers to partially changing the property or function of a specific organism by transferring exogenous genes to the organism using molecular biology methods. Genetically modified food is produced directly or indirectly using transgenic organisms. Genetically modified food can be divided into three categories, plant-based genetically modified food, animal-based genetically modified food and organism-based genetically modified food. Plant-based genetically modified food is the major component of genetically modified food currently, and transgenic soybean, transgenic tomato and transgenic corn are directly or indirectly circulated in market.

The purpose of transgenosis is to make organisms more suitable for using or eating by modifying their properties.

1.2 The Advantages and Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Food

1.2.1 Advantages

* The higher output of genetically modified crops can reduce the input of grain, which is benefit to global grain issues.

* Genetically modified crops are resistant to weeds and drugs, which can reduce the use of insecticide and herbicide compared to traditional crop.

* The development of genetically modified crops enriches biodiversity. Its quality guarantee period is long and moreover taste and flavor are improved to some extent.

* Genetically modified crops can be made into food which can resist diseases and is benefit to health using relevant technologies, which can avoid the waste caused by instability due to the application of grafting and hybridization.

The global planting and trade of genetically modified food can not only solve the problem of global food shortage, but also can realize commercial benefits. Therefore, there is great social values and broad market prospect. However, the safety of genetically modified food has not been definitely confirmed so far, which is induced by the limited recognition of people. (5) Thus, genetically modified food also has obvious disadvantages.

1.2.2 Disadvantages

* It may damage biodiversity, lead to ecological unbalance, and affect ecological environment.

* It may be toxic and cause unexpected risks to human because of its long incubation period.

* It is difficult to take the nutritional components of food into account while possessing the above advantages.


2.1 The Characteristics of the International Trade of Genetically Modified Food

2.1.1 The proportion distribution of genetically modified food

Currently, the planting area of genetically modified crops and the number of countries planting genetically modified crops both increase, while the proportion of traditional crops of same kinds reduces. Moreover, the proportion of genetically modified food among the products involved in international trade is increasing constantly.

As is known, America remains to the first power for the planting of genetically modified crops in the world, with a planting area of 70.9 million hectares (39% of the global planting area). Except America, the other countries which rank in the front places are Brazil, Argentina, India and Canada. The countries mentioned above are all export great powers of genetically modified food in the world; the import countries concentrate on Asia and Europe.

2.1.2 Being marketed and eaten after being processed into foods

Most of the foods abroad contain genetically modified food. (6) In countries such as America, daily food diet such as oatmeal in the breakfast all contains genetically modified components. In China, 80% of soybean oil for marketing is made from genetically modified soybean.

2.1.3 Increasingly prominent trade disputes

Transgenosis related technologies and products are of high risks to cause irreversible damages to the health of human body and environment. Therefore, the international trade issues induced by the safety of genetically modified products have been more and more prominent.


There are evidences suggesting that the total economic benefits generated by genetically modified crops from 1996 to 2014 were 150 billion dollars, 76.2 billion from the developed countries (50.7%) and 74.1 billion from the developed countries (49.3%). After the commercialization of genetically modified crops, about 18 million people planted genetically modified crops over the twenty years, and 90% of them were small peasant households from developing countries.

As a result, Chinese farmers gained 17.5 billion dollars benefit and Indian farmers obtained 18.3 billion dollars benefit at least from 1996 to 2014. Besides benefits, at least 50% of insecticide and pesticide spraying are saved due to the weed and insect resistance properties of genetically modified crops, which protect farmers from the damages of insecticide, reduce the intake of pesticide, protect environment, and reduce pollution.

Till 2015, the planting area of genetically modified crops had been more than 3.7 million hectares in China; the crops included genetically modified cotton, pawpaw and poplar, and the planting area of genetically modified crops was 3.7 million hectares. To accelerate the examination and approval of genetically modified crops, China has paid at least 3 billion dollars for the study of self-produced genetically modified seeds.

America has approved the commercialization of genetically modified animals as food, and the first species is salmon. (7) Moreover, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the first kind of genetically modified animals as a commercial food for consumption in 2015, after twenty years of examination. It is a kind of genetically modified salmon with faster growing speed and is expected to enter into American food chain before 2018.



3.1.1 Legal regulations in the framework of WTO

Agreement on technical barriers to trade

The purpose of the agreement is to standardize the behaviors of members exerting technical trade regulations and measures, guiding members to formulate, adopt and exert reasonable technical trade measures, encourage members to adopt international standards and conformity assessment procedures, (8) and ensure that technical regulations and standards for packaging, labeling and tagging conform to assessment procedures to avoid unnecessary international trade disorders and reduce technical trade barriers. (9)

The agreement on the sanitary and phytosanitary measures

The purposes of the agreement included maintaining the sovereignty of any government to provide proper health protection level and moreover avoid the abuse of the right for the purpose of protectionism and the unnecessary disorders to international trade. (10)

Agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS)

TRIPS does not specially mention the issues of genes or genetic technology patent. (11) Members can add the following explanation for it: a gene modified by genetic engineering may be new and innovative and can be applied in industry. Obviously, the gene conforms to the conditions related to invention in TRIPS and can be granted with patent as an invention and protected by TRIPS. (12)

3.1.2 legal regulations outside the framework of WTO

Convention on biological diversity

Its main aim is to protect biodiversity, realize sustainable utilization of biodiversity components and share the commercial benefits of heritage resources in a fair and reasonable way. (13)

Cartagena protocol on biosafety

The protocol emphasizes on the issue of transboundary movement of living modified organisms which are obtained by modern biotechnology and may produce adverse influence on the protection and sustainable use of biodiversity. (14)


3.2.1 Different aims of international regulations

Globalization trend strengthens the correlation between different fields in the world and leads to the overlap of international regulations because of the spread of problems in one field to other fields. (15) However, different international regulations have different aims.

WTO system is established for the purpose of free trade, and the content related to environment is based on the value orientation of trade liberalization. It aims at ensuring environment policies won't be the disorder of free trade and realizes the complementarity of trade policy and environment policy. Relevant standards of multilateral environmental agreements aim at environmental protection and health. Environmental issues usually come along with trade expansion, while policies concerning human health and environmental protection often limit the free development of trade. (16) The two aims are conflictive.

3.2.2 Conflicts between specific rules in international standards

The aim difference of international standards leads to conflicts in the form layer, and those differences mainly reflect on detailed content. When a country is a member of WTO and a member or contracting party of other agreements at the same time, performing the obligation of a system may violate the obligation of another system. Different countries perform obligation under different systems may also induce corresponding trade conflicts, for example, WTO rules and Cartagena protocol on Biosafety (Table 1).

3.2.3 The disadvantageous positions of the developing countries in WTO multilateral mechanisms

There is a large gap in the application degrees of WTO multilateral mechanisms by the developing countries and developed countries; (17) the developing countries are far behind the developed countries.

The developed countries and regions such as Europe, America and Japan join WTO earlier than the developing counties, have maturely developed international trade, have fully understood and mastered WTO rules, and collected many materials to cope with trade friction that is encountered in WTO multilateral settlement mechanisms. The developing countries seem to be weaker than the developed countries, no matter fund, technology or the familiarity degree of WTO terms.


In view of the current scientific layer, whether genetically modified food is safe is unable to be determined. Moreover, due to the differences of science and technology level, the depth of transgenic technology study and the level of economic development aggravate the divergence of different countries in the international trade of genetically modified food. Therefore, the WTO members are difficult to formulate unified uniform international standards, but only can formulate their own trade standards and policies by themselves.

China has released relevant legal regulations about genetically modified food. Especially in 21 century, China strengthened relevant laws and released Regulations for Agricultural Genetically Modified Organisms Safety Management, Regulations for Agricultural Genetically Modified Organisms Safety Assessment and Management, Regulations for Agricultural Genetically Modified Biological Label Management, Regulations for Agricultural Genetically Modified Organisms Import Safety Management and Regulations for Inward and Outward Genetically Modified Products Inspection and Quarantine Management. (18)

The successful implementation of genetically modified special projects is a symbol which suggests the study level of bioscience and safety in China has stepped to a new and higher step. But at the same time, China may face with potential significant risks brought by the development. It seems that the laws concerning genetically modified food in China have been perfected gradually; however, there are lots of problems. In general, there are problems such as incomprehensive legislation, imperfect system, incoherent procedure and outdated information transmission mechanism; therefore, continuous improvement and perfection are needed.


In China, only soybean, corn, oilseed rape, cotton and beet are approved to be imported as processing raw materials. These foods must obtain the safety certificates. The amount of those foods is much less than the amount of imported food containing genetically modified components that can be flowed in trade. Therefore, we should properly expand and publicly demonstrate more catalogs of the species of genetically modified products which apply identification laws. The current transgenic identification system in China cannot be effectively implemented because of the incomplete legislation, imperfect system and incoherent procedure, which urges the legislation of genetically modified food identification in China to accelerate completion and modification. In the current stage, whether genetically modified food is harmful to human body and environment has not been confirmed yet. The Chinese government should speed up to modify and complete the legislation of genetically modified food identification, positively cope with the genetically modified food disputes in the future, and protect our own benefits when WTO has not been able to solve those disputes in short term. (19)


European Union requires the country which wants to export genetically modified food to provide enormous research materials, experimental data and even relevant technical report and experimental instruments; only when no security threat is found by European Union related institutions can the application be accepted. (20) But when the application is proposed to China, China is unable to obtain correct test results due to the limited technology, which leads to severe resource loss. China should learn from the experience of European Union and refer to the method when some other products are applied for import approval.


Currently, the genetically modified food which is developed by China independently can only be supplied to the domestic market, which is because the total amount of the produced genetically modified food is not enough to satisfy large-amount export but can only satisfy the domestic demand. (21) China should take efforts to carry out researches on the regulations and conventions for the international trade of food, strengthen information flow and transmission system and establish the green barrier warning integrated system for various kinds of food including genetically modified food as well as the crucial grain production and trade data interaction system to timely transmit and share data and improve the precaution ability and rapid response ability of trade units to various green barriers.


The tolerance of the developing countries to genetically modified food is quite different, but the differences should not be the obstacle for the mutual benefit and collaboration between them. (22) Only when some great powers among the developing countries play the leading role well and improve their positions and speaking rights in the legal regulations for the international trade of genetically modified food can some week counties see hope and join the team. The developed countries will emphasize the requirements of the developing countries and the pattern of the international trade of genetically modified food may tend to be balanced when the developing countries are banded together like strands of a rope.


The advantages and disadvantages of genetically modified food as a newly sprouted thing cannot be determined in a scientific layer, because there is no evidence suggesting genetically modified food is absolutely harmless. Therefore, the attitudes to genetically modified food around the world are inconsistent, and even WTO is unable to give a definite answer to the issue of genetically modified food trade in the perspective of laws temporarily. A series of legal issues induced by genetically modified food need to be solved by regulations that are formulated by different countries and regions according to their own conditions.

With the improvement of the proportion of genetically modified food in international trade, only when we continuously deep the recognition and exploration on genetically modified food, perfect the law related to genetically modified food, establish normative information interaction system, positively cooperate with the developing countries, and reasonably cope with the disputes generated in the international trade of genetically modified food can the international competition of genetically modified food be improved on the premise of safe and ordered condition.

We should realize that, transgenic technology can bring unpredictable contributions to human being if it develops towards a good direction under the guidance of laws and regulations.


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Jiansheng Zhang is at the Office of the Principal, Hebei Agricultural University, Baoding, Hebei, China

Yanan Chen is at the College of Art of Hebei Agricultural University, Baoding, Hebei, China

Yu Li is at the School of Economic Law, East China University of Political Science and Law, China
Table 1: Similarity and difference of WTO rules and Cartagena protocol
on Biosafety

                                Wto rules                   Cartagena
                                                            protocol on

Similarity                      Both of them consider the
                                transboundary movement of
                                pest can threaten the
                                health and safety of
                                human, animals and plants
                                and proper measures must
                                be adopted to ensure
                                human health and
                                biological environment.

                                Both of them realize
                                international trade
                                activities can affect
                                biological environment
                                and emphasize scientific
                                principles, existing
                                scientific evidence and
                                the roles of
                                international standards
                                and international

Differences   Basic aims        WTO related agreements
                                mainly aim to promote the
                                development of trade.
                                Though many WTO related
                                agreements mention to
                                consider environmental
                                protection, which is a
                                principle stipulation, it
                                is difficult to operation
                                in reality and WTO has
                                not established
                                specialized agreement of
                                trade and environment.

              Basic             Non-discrimination
              principles and    principle is the
              rules             footstone of WTO.

Differences   It aims at preventing the
              adverse effects of the
              transboundary movement of
              genetically modified
              organisms and their
              products on biodiversity
              as well as the risks to
              human health, with the
              hope to adopt proper
              safety measures to ensure
              environmental and human
              health while developing
              and applying modern
              biotechnology. But it
              considers little about
              the development of trade.

              Precautionary principle
              is the most important
              principle and footstone
              of Cartagena protocol on
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Author:Zhang, Jiansheng; Chen, Yanan; Li, Yu
Publication:Journal of Commercial Biotechnology
Article Type:Report
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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