Better science needed to win trade disputes

In today’s highly competitive global economy, science has a crucial role to play in commerce. Traditionally it has driven the technologies used in the industrial production of everything from mobile phones to pharmaceuticals.

More recently, it has been used in product standards, particularly in testing for compliance, which can have a big impact on trade. For example, countries importing live animals must meet standards on factors such as weight and size; for crops such as rice, exporters must conform to criteria such as moisture content, size and weight.

But now, science is also playing a big part in a rising number of trade disputes. With a surge in disputes filed in 2012, with 26 filed so far, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is expecting the flood to continue in 2013. This could pose problems for the developing world, which is hampered by a lack of research and well-equipped laboratories.

A lack of capacity means that developing countries usually end up on the losing side when trade disputes arise.

When countries apply non-tariff barriers to block imported goods, poor exporting countries often do not have the scientific means to adequately dispute or refute the claims made for a restriction. Non-tariff barriers are imposed by importing countries to restrict the entry of certain goods into their markets, to protect consumers and the environment, among other objectives

Some of the more common non-tariff barriers imposed are sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) conditions, intellectual property laws, product standards, and packaging and labelling conditions. SPS conditions, in particular, are a key element of trade standards. These are measures that protect humans, animals and plants from pests, diseases and other contaminants.

When developing countries import goods, they also face the challenge of detecting suspect products such as fake medicines. To strengthen their trade position, both for exporting and importing, it is necessary for developing countries to build up capacities.

It is crucial to establish stronger collaboration in the scientific community. Often, research is organised vertically, with biologists working in one department, and chemists and engineers in others. They work in isolation and are far removed from industry and the private sector. As a result, in many cases, developing countries have no appropriate scientific expertise to bring to trade discussions and delegations.

As part of the problem is funding, countries could act in a bloc like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to improve regional capacities for trade and trade disputes and respond effectively as a group.

It is not practical to establish institutions with scientific expertise in every country, especially in island states in the Pacific. A co-ordinated regional science approach is more achievable.

Adriano is the South-East Asia & Pacific regional co-ordinator, SciDev.Net