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Food Security in a Post-COVID-19 World: Regulatory Perspectives for Agricultural Biotechnology

Food Security Food Security; Climate Change; Agriculture; Sustainable Development

Two important developments occurred early in October 2020 regarding Nobel Prizes conferred for Chemistry and Peace. The former went to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for their discovery of genome-editing technology, and the latter went to the United Nations World Food Program for their efforts to combat hunger and improve conditions for peace. Both these acknowledgments are interrelated and have crucial implications for the post-COVID-19 food policy landscape.

Dealing with food security is at the heart of post-COVID-19 recovery. As per the latest Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates, 800 million people are chronically hungry whereas as many as two billion are micronutrient deficient.1 This adds to the health burden of nations that have been stretched to the maximum during peak COVID-19. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, domestic food supply chains have been affected with vast repercussions stemming from loss of income and remittances in many countries. Additionally, climate-change-related environmental stresses, including devastating bushfires in Australia and locust attacks in Africa and South Asia in 2020, have also decreased agricultural productivity worldwide.2

The discussion around agricultural biotechnology, especially in light of technological advancements, warrants an evolving science-policy-society discourse. The COVID-19 situation has depicted a complex interplay of converging and diverging sociopolitical and socioeconomic forces interspersed with science's potential in solving global problems. It has fast-tracked a number of scientific professionals, doctors, and international organizations to iterate and ideate science communication related to COVID-19 to the public.3 We have also seen the full force of misinformation4 and how it is emerging as another “non-tariff” barrier to the commercialization of scientific innovation.  Discourse surrounding agricultural biotechnology has suffered similar setbacks, though at a lesser but definitive pace.

As is the case with other frontier technologies, regulatory regimes do not keep pace with technological development, resulting in the creation of “institutional drift”5 or regulatory gaps that hinder technology absorption. The science-policy interface of biotechnologies for agriculture over the years has been defined by a trans-Atlantic divide6 and institutional drift created by two parallel international regulatory regimes in the form of the Cartagena Protocol (to the Convention on Biological Diversity) and the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (under the World Trade Organization).

Genome-editing methods, primarily in the form of CRISPR-Cas9, have ushered in a new era of powerful scientific tools for rapid and precise development of high-quality agricultural products with beneficial traits for growers and consumers. A game-changing difference between genome editing and the previous genome-modification method is that editing does not necessarily lead to the insertion of foreign DNA in plant species. This has led to a significant question of whether the regulatory landscape for genome editing should be different from genetic engineering or not. Many countries across the world including Australia, United States, Argentina, Brazil, and Canada have deregulated the form of genome editing (referred to as SDN-1), in which no foreign DNA/genetic change is incorporated.7 The European Union, on the other hand, has maintained that the same regulation will apply for genome editing as well, much to the dismay of scientists and proponents of evidence-driven policy design.8

Disharmonized regulations related to agricultural biotechnology impact international trade9 and increase entry barriers for small and medium enterprises due to high compliance costs. Furthermore, this regulatory divide will be reflected in the evolving discourse for genome-edited agricultural products in international treaty regimes, especially the Cartagena Protocol. Additionally, inconsistent criteria for “socio-economic considerations” and politicization of the Precautionary Principle within the Cartagena Protocol also create disharmonized regulatory structures.10 Siloed debates around scientific criteria for risk assessment and biosafety, the role of NGOs in framing genetically-modified crops as unfavorable, and market monopolization perspectives have left the future of new breeding technologies hanging in the balance.

Science diplomacy (SD), with its ever-evolving repertoire of synergy-driven science-policy-society interface, has the potential to future-proof the regulatory imbroglio surrounding agricultural biotechnology. Firstly, using SD and its derivatives (i.e., science diplomats) ameliorates institutional integration between the international regulatory regimes. This can be done through the expert working groups made under the mandates of both the Cartagena Protocol and the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. This is needed because presently, there is a minimal “Science in Diplomacy” interface for international governance of biotechnology, unlike what has been successfully demonstrated in the case of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Secondly, the dialogue surrounding the regulation can no longer run on the deficit model11 and requires a more dynamic exchange between the innovator, consumer, and regulator. Dialogues initiated under the auspices of the International Network of Government Science Advice (INGSA) and its subsidiary divisions can be ideal platforms for rendering nuanced and balanced science advice to nudge states and entities toward constructive dialogue on regulating genome editing for agricultural biotechnology. SD also helps researchers and policy professionals to create “imaginaries” for our sociotechnical future.12 Agricultural biotechnology needs a new imaginary defined by a fresh discourse on the changed nature of genome editing as well as acceptance of regulation proportionate to risk.

Lastly, SD as a platform provides multi-stakeholder inclusion and co-creation of norms and technology assessments necessary for catering to diverse views, with due consideration of ethical concerns in addition to scientific considerations. Disharmonized regulations are themselves a source of stakeholder exclusion, which needs to be addressed. Since the genesis and propagation of SD are rooted in interdisciplinarity and cross-domain skill transfer, the importance of social sciences and humanities is retained in the use of SD as a platform for discussion on agricultural biotechnology regulation.

Future-casting science diplomacy in a post-COVID-19 world necessitates broader and comprehensive partnerships between scientists, policymakers, and society on fundamental resources such as food and health. Regulatory perspectives surrounding technologies also require upheaval to ensure they are able to address global challenges.


  1. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO, “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019,” 2019,
  2. Miodrag Stevanović, Alexander Popp, Hermann Lotze-Campen, Jan Philipp Dietrich, Christoph Müller, Markus Bonsch, Christoph Schmitz, Benjamin Leon Bodirsky, Florian Humpenöder, and Isabelle Weindl, “The impact of high-end climate change on agricultural welfare,” Science Advances 2, no. 8 (2016): e1501452.
  3. Jay J. Van Bavel, Katherine Baicker, Paulo S. Boggio, Valerio Capraro, Aleksandra Cichocka, Mina Cikara, Molly J. Crockett, “Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response,” Nature Human Behaviour (2020): 1-12.
  4. Dietram A. Scheufele and Nicole M. Krause, “Science audiences, misinformation, and fake news,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 16 (2019): 7662-7669.
  5. Florian Rabitz, “Institutional Drift in International Biotechnology Regulation,” Global Policy 10, no. 2 (2019): 227-237.
  6. Sheila Jasanoff, “Between risk and precaution–reassessing the future of GM crops,” (2000): 277-282.
  7. Steffi Friedrichs, Yoko Takasu, Peter Kearns, Bertrand Dagallier, Ryudai Oshima, Janet Schofield, and Catherine Moreddu, “An overview of regulatory approaches to genome editing in agriculture,” Biotechnology Research and Innovation 3, no. 2 (2019): 208-220.
  8. Fyodor D. Urnov, Pamela C. Ronald, and Dana Carroll. “A call for science-based review of the European court's decision on gene-edited crops,” Nature Biotechnology 36, no. 9 (2018): 800-802.
  9. Rosane Nunes de Faria and Christine Wieck, “Empirical evidence on the trade impact of asynchronous regulatory approval of new GMO events,” Food Policy 53 (2015): 22-32.
  10. Jingjing Zhao, “The role of international organizations in preventing conflicts between the SPS Agreement and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety,” Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law (2020): 271-281.
  11. Peter Weingart and Marina Joubert, “The conflation of motives of science communication—causes, consequences, remedies” Journal of Science Communication 18, no. 3 (2019): Y01.
  12. Bechtold, Ulrike, Daniela Fuchs, and Niklas Gudowsky. “Imagining socio-technical futures–challenges and opportunities for technology assessment.” Journal of Responsible Innovation 4, no. 2 (2017): 85-99.
Diplomacy for Science Science in Diplomacy January 2021: Special Issue