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The International Lawyer

The International Lawyer, Volume 56, Number 3, 2023

The Bioeconomy: Legal Building Blocks & Barriers for World Markets

Shelby Lepley


  • Unprecedented demand for necessities continues to rise, and the world must innovate industries that are multidisciplinary tosecure essentials.
  • Fortunately, growth leads to positive economic outcomes, but purposeful action must be taken to obtain positive outcomes.
  • The bioeconomy is an area for deliberate action where collaboration can advance world markets while securing the biological needs of a growing population.
The Bioeconomy: Legal Building Blocks & Barriers for World Markets
IAISI via Getty Images

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I. Introduction

By the year 2050, the world population is anticipated to rise above 9.7 billion. Consequently, the world will have to produce food, safe water, health care, careers, living space, social institutions, and the other basic needs for an additional 1.7 billion lives. This perspective, unfortunately, does not include the 685 million people (8.5% of the world population) estimated already living in poverty. Unprecedented demand for necessities continues to rise, and the world must innovate industries that are multidisciplinary to secure essentials.

Fortunately, growth leads to positive economic outcomes, but purposeful action must be taken to obtain positive outcomes. As Peter L. Scher, Vice Chairman for JPMorgan Chase & Co., stated, “Economic growth fuels economic opportunity . . . Yet it is not preordained that an expanding economy automatically translates into greater opportunity for all. Rather, it requires deliberate action and meaningful collaboration.” The bioeconomy is an area for deliberate action where collaboration can advance world markets while securing the biological needs of a growing population. The bioeconomy, or “share of the economy based on products, services, and processes derived from biological resources,” offers options where the multidisciplinary approach the world requires to increase supplies of food, water, clean air, energy, and many essential byproducts. Yet this economic subsector varies significantly by country depending on their technological advancements and access to resources.

Many hurdles must be overcome to leverage the global bioeconomy efficiently and effectively. The bioeconomy is regulated largely on a nation-by-nation basis, thus uniformity across countries is currently non-existent. Furthermore, nations with greater income and access to resources have far more comprehensive bioeconomic laws and policies, as compared to their lower-income counterparts. Low-income countries (LICs) experience their own hurdles because of added concerns over governance, exploitation, and corruption. Additionally, recent lack of international collaboration poses supplemental difficulties when aiming to take full advantage of the bioeconomy.

To fully capitalize on the global bioeconomy, three objectives must be accomplished. First, multi-level governance must be established to protect world markets and incentivize bioeconomic development. International law, trade agreements, and domestic laws must be implemented simultaneously to encourage world bioeconomic modernization and prevent unintended consequences to international trade. Second, high-income countries (HICs) should institute laws and policies that invest in international bioeconomic development. Third, LICs should engage in regional treaties allowing them to better leverage their competitive advantage for natural resources. In the coming generations, the bioeconomy will be the epicenter of trade, development efforts, technological exchange, natural resource access, and geopolitical leverage. To meet the demand of the growing population, there must be multi-level governance for the global bioeconomy that establishes international law, national commitments to international engagement, dispute settlement features, and enforceable accountability measures.

Evaluating the legal building blocks and barriers of the global bioeconomy is complex and requires an understanding of the bioeconomy as impacted by national policies, international affairs, and international organizations. First, this article will cover the necessary background information to understand the bioeconomy, the international order’s position to engage in bioeconomy, and the respective positioning of HICs and LICs. Next, the current legal context for the bioeconomy will be discussed regarding international law, international organizations, two HICs (China and the United States), a middle-income country (MIC) (Colombia) and a LIC (Rwanda). Finally, the analysis will suggest how these different institutions can work together to maximize the bioeconomy’s potential and meet growing demand and need.

A. The Bioeconomy

The bioeconomy is essential to sustaining the needs of the current and future population and must be developed strategically in accordance with its importance. To explain, the bioeconomy encompasses many sectors that impact nearly every aspect of life because it contributes to agriculture, textiles, chemical production, and energy. Furthermore, it addresses future concerns by offering solutions to “challenges such as climate change, food security, energy independence, and environmental sustainability” while encouraging job creation, human health, and rural development. Looking at the entire global economy, it is projected that bio-based products, services, and processes will generate $4 trillion per year over the next ten years. The combination of producing biological resources, stimulating economic growth, and addressing emerging issues is uniquely specific to this sector. It is in the best interest of the global community to dedicate time and energy in developing legal frameworks which allow the bioeconomy to flourish while expanding sustainably.

On a global level, governance of the international bioeconomy is traditionally limited to sectors (e.g., energy, forests, and agriculture) with cross-cutting strategies reserved as a national endeavor. Despite this practice, incentives remain to produce cross-cutting policies at the international level, since the bioeconomy supports long-term sustainability of land, water, and sustenance despite challenges like climate change. The United Nations (UN) and other international organizations recognize this need. For example, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), or the seventeen goals developed by the UN to inspire global action on sustainable economic, social, and environmental development, would benefit from global bioeconomic governance. Over half of the SDGs already relate to the bioeconomy. As confirmation, Goal one aims to achieve zero hunger through sustainable food-crop production and distribution, while Goal three promotes good health and well-being. Goal six promotes clean water and sanitation, and Goal fifteen protects, restores, and promotes the appropriate use of terrestrial ecosystems and reverse land degradation. Despite these goals, more progress must be accomplished to sustain future demand. Constructing cross-cutting governance at the international level would promote these goals while facilitating efficient production and distribution of essential biological resources and byproducts.

Bioeconomies are not a new concept to any nation because all produce and consume biological resources. But bioeconomic policies vary substantially from nation to nation depending on the nation’s resources, location, and development. National policy considerations typically adopt one of three main visions for the bioeconomy:

  • Biotechnology: focused on economic growth and employment creation;
  • Bioresources: aims to achieve environmental sustainability while generating economic growth through bio-based production; and
  • Bioecology: prioritizes environmental sustainability, with economic growth and employment creation secondary.

Technologically advanced countries, often HICs, rely on biotechnology visions, whereas LICs that rely on primary sectors, such as agriculture, forestry, or fisheries, will not incorporate a robust biotechnology vision. These visions are key to understanding the legal framework of the bioeconomy because they are an extension of a nation’s resources, expertise, and policy priorities.

B. The International Order

The international order, or global “international economic institutions, bilateral and regional security organizations, and liberal political norms,” is essential to understanding what bioeconomic action can be feasibly accomplished. Globalization and the increased movement of biological resources across demonstrates how the international order should adapt to capitalize on bioeconomic opportunities. Generally, international engagement offers access to world markets, stimulates the economy, and decreases prices for the consumer. Unfortunately, collaboration between nations is frequently strained. International conflict and competition are a primary challenge for agreements on international bioeconomic governance.

Despite previously holding a prominent role in regulating trade, recent trends insinuate that the international order may be unreliable moving forward. Following World War II, the world accepted a “liberal democratic order” in which countries collectively pursued economic, political, diplomatic, and strategic efforts. This push resulted in the creation of international organizations that could protect developing countries and create global governance. Recently, lack of consensus in the international order has caused these organizations to be less effective. Richard Haass describes the emerging attitude as a “widespread rejection of globalization and international involvement and . . . a questioning of long-standing postures and policies, from openness to trade and immigrants to a willingness to maintain alliances and overseas commitments.” While this may be the attitude, this does not mean that the international order is incapable of establishing and implementing global governance of the bioeconomy. Achieving agreement between nations and regions will be a substantial challenge. Nonetheless, the growing concern for biological resource access may provide the incentive for nations to collaborate once again.


HICs are uniquely positioned to provide support to other nations, develop in-depth bioeconomic policies, and influence global trends, but they still face challenges when engaging the international order. HICs, because of their available capital, actively maximize their biological resources through policy and technological advancement. Despite their relative advantages, HICs answer to growing populations, and geopolitical obstacles can stand in the way of progress.

Geopolitics increasingly complicate HICs’ investment in the global bioeconomy and willingness to develop a multilateral agreement to govern this economic sector. Competition between HICs leaves development in LICs as a “lever for furthering geopolitical aims.” Open markets, free trade, durability of globalization, and investment relations are at risk, and there is “increasing political pressure from domestic and international constituencies as they seek to construct the critical partnerships needed to further their development needs.” While most nations see the global bioeconomy as a priority, there are still additional considerations that limit HICs’ commitment to global bioeconomic action.


International trade will increase as the population grows, and LICs’ bioeconomic resources are essential to meeting growing demand. This offers many opportunities for developing countries to use their bioeconomic resources to generate income. Yet there are persisting challenges preventing the LICs from fully achieving their potential. Many of the lowest-income countries benefit from abundant natural resources and can, with development, benefit from investments in the bioeconomy. But Paul Collier, renowned international development economist, theorizes that four traps prevent the lowest-income countries from converging with the rest of the world: conflict, natural resources, landlocked nations with bad neighbors, and bad governance. These challenges impact the bioeconomy and the potential benefit a country will receive. For instance, “bio-based primary sectors in many developing countries suffer from productivity deficits . . . attributable to political and institutional factors as well as technical barriers.” Therefore, cross-cutting action from international organizations and HICs is essential to achieve convergence or decreasing the proportionate gap between poor countries and rich countries. Convergence would allow LICs greater opportunity to engage in international trade and meet the needs of a growing population.

Without multilevel governance, LICs face aggressive coordinated international markets where they cannot efficiently access the global bioeconomy. Dwindling international collaboration supporting LICs and a changing world order hinder the growth of LICs because it prevents them from engaging with the international order. Even if LICs can engage in international trade, global markets remain hostile because of external factors, such as LICs overcoming cost competitiveness compared to nations exporting diverse, value-added products. The bioeconomy plays a role in solving these issues, yet “conflicting national priorities make it hard to align bioeconomy policies to meet the SDGs on a global scale.” Not to mention, international organizations no longer see the consistent success they once had in facilitating global negotiations. The challenges must be addressed in order to achieve multilevel governance and appropriately produce for growing demand.

While the bioeconomy offers potential solutions to these issues, concern exists that biological resources could be exploited beyond their sustainable limits. For example, increasing consumption of biological resources for food or other value-added products can lead to negative externalities, such as overexploitation, illegal harvesting, soil degradation, groundwater depletion, decreased biodiversity, and international disputes. Unintended consequences must be considered if the international order constructs a system of multilevel governance for the bioeconomy.

The potential exists for resource-rich LICs to leverage their bioeconomy and obtain convergence while meeting the demands of the growing world population. To take advantage of this potential for enhancement, there must be well-developed international policies and multi-level governance. Multi-level governance refers to a combination of efforts at the local, regional, and international level in both the public and private sectors. First, at the local level there must be societal infrastructure to develop, implement and enforce laws. Next, regional agreements should be coordinated to increase the strength of countries international negotiating power and access to trade routes. Simultaneously, other nations should strategically adopt policies and laws that allow for free trade and prevent corruption harboring. Nations whose politics favor development and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can provide monetary support at this level, but this should be done with caution to avoid exacerbating LICs’ challenges. Finally, international organizations should be altered to maintain their influence in the modern international order. Each of these steps would promote supply of biological resources, growth, international trade, and the UN SDGs. Bioeconomies in developing nations “have considerable potential for promoting sustainable growth through a transfer of knowledge and technology.” Nations need only take advantage of this opportunity to avoid an anticipated shortage of biological resources.

II. Legal Context for the Bioeconomy’s Governance

There are various legal systems that pertain to the global bioeconomy, its proposed governance, and potential action from HICs, MICs, and LICs. To understand the complexity of the international system and the legal context that pertains to this subject, the following section will first focus on the role of international soft law and international organizations. Next, the discussion will transition to individual nations, since their individual laws and policies dictate involvement in the international bioeconomy and engagement with other nations. Two HICs, China and the United States, are the focus of this paper because of their contrasting positions. Finally, the policies and laws of a MIC (Colombia) and a LIC (Rwanda) will be evaluated.

A. International Soft Law

Agreements reached through international organizations operate primarily in a consensual system that lacks binding components. This produces “soft law” or written international instruments (excluding treaties or other binding agreements) that “[contains] principles, norms, standards, or other statement of expected behavior.” Because soft law is non-binding, these instruments are not formal laws. But soft law can later become formal law through adoption into a treaty or customary international law. Formalizing soft law in either instance is complex and unclear. To establish soft law as customary international law, enough nations must “[comply] with entirely new non-binding norms” through statements of obligation and conduct.

Additionally, soft law does not become binding simply because it is linked to a binding obligation; it must be formally adopted into a treaty. Alternatively, soft law can also be adopted into the nation’s domestic law, making it “hard law,” or states’ behavior can result in customary international law. As a result of the multifaceted international legal system, “[t]here is no ‘recipe’ for success that will ensure the effective resolution of international problems and conflicts.” Additionally, international affairs have demonstrated that global governance is fragmented and polycentric, indicating a shift away from respecting and adopting soft law. When either soft law is adopted into a treaty, customary law, or domestic law, Article 38 in the Statute of International Court of Justice (ICJ) grants the court authority to address disputes concerning international conventions recognized by the contesting states, international customs, and general laws recognized by nations.

B. Intranational Organizations

Since the bioeconomy has transboundary ramifications, international governance should complement domestic laws and policies. The bioeconomy supports economic gains, job creation, food security, and productive land use, which subsequently impacts international agreements, migration, and competition for food, non-food crops, land, water, and other resources. Four organizations govern international law and economic development: the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the United Nations (UN).

Each of these organizations plays a vital role in global cooperation and promoting LIC’s convergence. The IMF promotes the growth of its member countries “by supporting economic policies that promote financial stability and monetary cooperation, which are essential to increase productivity, job creation, and economic well-being.” Typically, the IMF achieves these goals by offering support through monetary policy and fixed exchange rates to restore economic stability. The World Bank provides financial products and technical assistance, notably loans with below-market interest rates, to help countries address challenges they may face. The WTO, or the organization handling trade agreements between nations, is responsible for smooth, predictable, and free international trade amongst its member nations. In this role, the WTO facilitates trade negotiations, implements and monitors trade, settles disputes, and builds trade capacity. Finally, the UN’s role generally provides a forum for nations to discuss global challenges and collaborate on solutions. Specifically, the UN’s SDGs establish development commitments for its member nations. Concerning bioeconomy governance, the WTO and many of the UN’s branch organizations are already recognized as playing a leading role. For this analysis, the WTO and UN’s responsibilities regarding international trade and development are a key piece on the puzzle in maximizing the utility of the global bioeconomy.

As stated previously, many bioeconomies rely on agriculture, forestry, and fisheries or the byproduct markets of these goods. Through the WTO, these products (excluding fisheries) are governed under the Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) because WTO members wish to ensure “a fair and market-oriented agricultural trading system” catering to the specific qualities of agricultural products. The AoA developed a framework for agricultural regulation based on market access, domestic support, and export competition to establish predictability in global agricultural trade. Notably, the AoA tightened domestic and export subsidy regulations to prevent HICs from subsidizing their agricultural commodities, thus creating more favorable export prices and distorted world trade. Subsequent WTO case law in Canada-Dairy, EU Sugar, and US-Cotton demonstrated the WTO’s commitment to obtaining fair global markets and stopping countries from over-subsidizing agricultural commodities in a way that undermines less-powerful nations. This pushed countries to make alternative export subsidies contingent on positive bioeconomic practices that support environmental protection. The AoA created the Green Box category to remove limitations on subsidies meant to produce positive externalities via agriculture. This progression of international law demonstrates that the WTO has exercised legitimate authority to influence member countries and incentivize the creation of bioeconomic policy in the past. The dispute and negotiation functions which created these international laws still exist in the WTO, but the usefulness of these functions will remain dependent on member nations’ compliance into the future.

The WTO’s recent failed trade liberalization negotiations evoke concern regarding its power, and some are skeptical that their involvement in the bioeconomy could harm less developed nations if policies are weak. Two examples expose the concerns related to the WTO’s governance of the bioeconomy:

“[E]xposing developing countries’ agricultural sector to more free trade might affect not only their economies but also their food security, and not always positively. In the same vein, clean technology transfer might be facilitated by low tariffs, but intellectual property rights might be infringed upon by increasing trade in biotechnologies.”

Situations where free trade negatively impacts food security occur when countries’ agricultural commodities are more valuable elsewhere, leading to their population being unable to ascertain or afford domestic goods. These concerns can be avoided if the WTO gives preference to environmentally preferred products, regulates the trade of bio-based products, and aims to expand bioeconomic trade.

The UN was formed to eliminate poverty and increase access to rudimentary needs, irrespective of location or wealth. Currently, 193 nations are committed to increasing the availability of human necessities through their membership in UN. This indicates that all member states would also be interested in promoting common standards for the bioeconomy, but geopolitics complicates progression. The UN Charter orders member nations to seek solutions through “negotiation, inquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, the result of regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.” While this international charter sets a structure to improve international cooperation, this system was not well-positioned to respond to the new diffusion of world power. Recent movements away from global cooperation highlight the weaknesses of these organizations. For the UN and the international financial system to have legitimate influence, countries must be willing to abide by global agreements and respect the findings of the organizations. As countries leverage the bioeconomy to achieve their objectives, international organizations and law must evolve to maintain pace with global challenges.

The UN’s role in the bioeconomy is split amongst its many specialized agencies, most notably the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which helps nations take full advantage of international trade. UNCTAD’s biofuels and bio trade initiatives already support the bioeconomy, but there remains untapped potential for the organization to offer greater governance to the international bioeconomy via trade. Currently, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) links UNCTAD and the WTO, thus indicating that UNCTAD could be used as a forum to address global bioeconomic trade. Ultimately, the UN and WTO provide a forum for nations to collaborate, but this collaboration does not always result in binding agreements that countries can use to hold each other accountable. It is in the best interest of the bioeconomy for nations to pursue binding agreements in these international organizations that allow them to leverage their bioeconomic vision.

C. High-Income Countries

As of 2020, over forty countries and regions adopted bioeconomy strategies. Even though this number continues to grow, the concept of the bioeconomy is relatively new and nationally focused. Therefore, the law is rapidly evolving to address rising challenges. Furthermore, the laws and policies of each country are designed to meet their needs and occasionally lack guidance on international action. Those nations facing shortages of bioeconomic goods and services are incentivized to access natural resources via international collaboration.

1. China

Notably among rapidly developing economics, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has extensively developed laws impacting the international bioeconomy to overcome these exact concerns. The PRC has been incredibly attentive to the bioeconomy through recent legislation and international involvement. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) targets rich bioeconomies in low-income Southeast Asian and African countries to access their biological resources. The government has stated that it “will actively pursue agricultural co-operation and development overseas, establish large-scale offshore centers for farm product production, processing, storage, and transportation, and cultivate internationally competitive multinational agricultural companies.” The PRC’s focused attention on agriculture demonstrates its desire to benefit from the bioeconomies in BRI partner nations. Of the fifty-eight lowest-income countries Paul Collier previously named, forty-eight (nearly eighty-three percent) have agreed to join the BRI.

To maintain speed with new forms of economic growth, the PRC prioritizes “institutional innovation and [creation of] systems encouraging and supporting entrepreneurship and innovation” in all aspects of the bioeconomy. This includes biotechnology, bio-based manufacturing, biomedicine, biomedical engineering, agriculture, bioenergy, environmental protection, and associated services. The PRC aims to increase its efficiency in all areas of the bioeconomy by expanding manufacturing, agricultural business, service industries, the value chain, and the traditional growth drivers. These goals are all set globally through an international cooperation that establishes a new global economic structure and growth patterns. China’s 14th Five-Year Plan also solidifies the PRC’s commitment to increasing research and development funding by seven percent annually through 2025.

Chinese development-focused BRI laws and policies partially come as a result of “an intensification of geopolitical competition,” and demand for resource efficiency. Simply stated, China is in a geopolitical race with the West and wishes to maintain global influence by restructuring the international order while protecting access to much needed natural resources. In exchange, China offers developing nations “true multilateralism,” so these countries can better engage in international institutions and advance their priorities. In the agreements, China’s approach differs from that of Western development efforts because there is a greater respect for non-interference. This approach appeals to LICs wishing to maintain their sovereignty, but in reality, it is further contributing to the Collier’s traps. Chinese BRI loans contribute to corruption, exacerbate poor governance, and frequently fail to consider the local communities’ goals.

2. United States

Since 2005, U.S. bioeconomy policies have been a combination of executive action and legislation. Differing significantly from its Chinese counterpart, the U.S. focuses its policies on national innovation, local workforces, cultivating markets, and public-private partnerships. The U.S. only partially includes primary sectors (agriculture, fisheries, and forestry) in its definition of the bioeconomy, unlike most nations with a bioeconomy strategy. Under the Obama Administration, priority was devoted to research and development, training, refined regulations, and investment in the bioeconomy through presidential memorandums and other policy-guiding documents. The Trump Administration mirrored its predecessor in that it focused its influence on the bioeconomy’s infrastructure, talent, and protection. The Biden Administration produced the Executive Order (E.O.) on Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy (E.O. 14,081), which, again directed the federal government to pursue a robust domestic agenda with only brief attention paid to international bioeconomy cooperation. Of that international cooperation, the President tasks the state department with exploring joint research projects, expert exchanges, regulatory cooperation, joint training initiatives, sharing of data, threat anticipation, and promotion of biosecurity practices.

In 2005, legislation was also passed regarding the bioeconomy which forced the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to award grants to promote bioeconomy growth. With the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, bioeconomy research, extension, and education priorities were set for the Secretary of Agriculture. Then from 2017 to 2021, the U.S. Congress produced numerous reports, bills, and laws to increase the federal government’s attention to the bioeconomy. Most recently, congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 (P.L. 117-80), which President Biden signed on August 9, 2022. This bipartisan legislation secured bioeconomic research and development in Title IV. Across all legislation, any mention of U.S. international affairs emphasizes general bioeconomic cooperation between research institutions and the removal of trade barriers.

There are numerous reasons why the United States policy is refocusing domestically. First and foremost, many voters have a difficult time conceptualizing how foreign policy promotes domestic economic growth and stability. During and after World War II, the connection between foreign policy and domestic benefits was well established and understood by U.S. citizens. Following the Cold War, this relationship unraveled because of the emergence of other superpowers, lack of existential overseas threats, and growing domestic demands. Now, U.S. foreign policy is at another inflection point because the middle-class demands more of domestic policy, and foreign policy is seemingly disconnected from middle-class concerns. International bioeconomic efforts unfortunately fall into this void. Perhaps, policymakers are relying on the private sector to drive efforts in international bioeconomic expansion, research and development, sustainability, and LIC development. Regardless, if the U.S. is to engage in the international bioeconomic race, it must focus its foreign policy to alleviate domestic concerns first.

D. Middle-Income Countries & Low-Income Countries

No two MICs or LICs are entirely alike. Therefore, the laws and governance needed to regulate each of their bioeconomies and stimulate growth should be specific because each nation has unique resources, geographic considerations, technology, allies, culture, history, legal structures, and ability to engage in the international order. There are common struggles that these countries must overcome to leverage their biological resources. Historically, some countries have been marginalized and were not included in the bioeconomy planning process. Frankly, domestic bioeconomy focused laws and policies in MICs and LICs are limited at best. Stronger multilevel governance, rising to the level of international governance, may allow MICs and LICs to be more involved, protect their resources, and engage in the international bioeconomy in a sustainable way.

1. Colombia

Currently, Colombia’s laws relating to the bioeconomy have been sector-focused while policies address the entire bioeconomy. Colombia’s rich biodiversity allows the nation to produce high-value-added products from raw materials sourced in the country. To prevent over-exploitation and loss of biodiversity as a result of economic gains, Colombia’s national bioeconomy strategy aims to address the “tangible issues in reconciling growth and development with biodiversity and conservation aims in bioeconomy pathways.” Lack of infrastructure and uncertain land ownership still limit Colombia’s bioeconomic progression.

Colombia’s international collaborations do seem to protect its bioeconomic interests. In 2012, the United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement was signed. This agreement focused on eliminating trade barriers between the nations, while also making key carve outs to protect the environment. These included maintaining environmental standards in each respective nation, while striving for higher standards. As a result, “the United States and Colombia commit not to weaken existing environmental laws or to reduce environmental protections in any way that will give domestic producers an advantage over the other country’s exporters . . . .” Despite being trade driven, these protections are an important aspect of protecting the nation’s biodiversity and bioeconomy. Colombia has demonstrated that it is committed to international bioeconomic engagement, which leads to questions whether the country will collaborate with China’s BRI to obtain infrastructural investment. Commentators have signaled that Colombia should be wary of the BRI because it comes with “geopolitical strings,” and some of the BRI projects have failed because they have not taken local context into consideration.

2. Rwanda

LICs with comprehensive laws pertaining to the bioeconomy are rare. Even those that have dedicated attention to their bioeconomy have produced policy strategies to guide the governance and development of the industry, rather than formal laws. For example, Rwanda initiated the Green Growth and Climate Resilience Strategy to guide its bioeconomy and link its efforts to international African bioeconomy collaboration in 2011. Dialogue has increased regarding “alternative pathways that might include regional biomass trade and greater integration of agricultural residues as a bioresource.” Many stakeholders recognize the need for multilevel policies and governance to achieve these goals. “Good governance” was listed as a goal in the Green Growth and Climate Resilience Strategy, thus demonstrating Rwanda’s policy commitment to seek reliable governance for the bioeconomy.

Interactions with China are actively reshaping the Rwandan bioeconomy. To bring greater investment to the country, Rwanda joined the BRI in 2018, along with sixty other countries. This agreement with the PRC would provide infrastructure investments that could later benefit the Rwandan bioeconomy. As a direct result of the BRI agreements in Africa and Rwanda, African agricultural exports to China have increased by 18.2% because of increased connectivity and convenient transportation. Officials have stated that they welcome this trade and look forward to increased trade in other bioeconomic sectors, such as pharmaceuticals and energy.

III. Analysis

Further, to meet the demand of a growing population, developing world markets will require global bioeconomic governance and international law. To date, the bioeconomy is largely a national endeavor, yet it has significant transboundary effects on the environment, trade, food production, migration, job creation, and competition for resources. These transboundary effects lead to international agreements and justify the need for the international community to collaborate on this matter. Multilevel governance, HICs’ policy decisions, and strengthening of lower-income countries laws can be used to overcome the challenges of a growing population.

A. International Governance

Based on recent international shifts, global governance is less desired, but regional agreements still offer an alternative solution. Today, overarching international agreements are more difficult to obtain, and several powerful nations have withdrawn from international cooperation because of conflicting geopolitical interests. Even when international agreement can be achieved, a lack of binding mechanisms results in soft law that cannot be enforced. Alternatively, bilateral and regional agreements driven by economic goals and mutual welfare are a viable option for MICs and LICs to leverage their bioeconomies. The development of regional organizations demonstrates collaboration that could be used to support bioeconomic policy (e.g., African Community of West African States (ECOWAS), South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARCP), Southern Common Market (MER- COSUR), South African Development Community (SADC), Economic Community of Central African States (CEMAC), Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)). Three primary arguments are made for the regional approach:

  • Regional similarities encourage bioeconomy governance and collaboration because of common challenges and opportunities;
  • Regional governance initiatives could be tested for effectiveness before rising to the international level; and
  • Increased regional cooperation would benefit the southern hemisphere by increasing the strength of their voices in the international realm.

This method allows similarly positioned MICs and LICs to collaborate and better influence the governance of the international bioeconomy. These agreements may result in enforceable international laws that are region-specific, accounting for challenges and opportunities in the signing countries.

Additionally, the WTO and UN maintain viable spheres of influence to support the global bioeconomy. These organizations, while receiving opposition in the international forum, still contribute to developing and enforcing successful regional agreements. There are three key benefits that these organizations provide that demonstrate their usefulness to the global bioeconomy. First, they facilitate negotiations and agreements between countries. Second, the WTO offers a dispute settlement feature which establishes enforceability to international commitments. Third, the UN’s influence helps raise awareness for international action. These attributes, in theory, could increase bioeconomic trade leading to increase access to biological resources, facilitate the transfer of technology, and aid in meeting the demand of the growing population.

The WTO’s AoA and dispute settlement system demonstrate the ways in which the organization could expand market access for MICs and LICs. Tightening regulations on domestic and export subsidies on biological resources in HICs would possibly allow less powerful nations to benefit from more favorable export prices and generate revenue. Recognizing that this is a highly unpopular option amongst HIC exporters, the likelihood of achieving a bioeconomic agreement with these terms is low. But the organization could implement policies that promote positive bioeconomy externalities, such as trade incentives for laws favoring bioeconomic research and development or environmental protection. Next, the WTO’s dispute settlement system allows the organization to enforce such agreements and impose penalties, as was seen in the Canada-Dairy, EU Sugar, and US-Cotton cases. This is a key consideration when evaluating the role of the WTO in the bioeconomy because without the dispute settlement forums, there is no protection against nations wishing to take advantage of the global bioeconomy.

The probability of obtaining a global agreement on the bioeconomy, similar to the AoA, is incredibly low because of recent opposition to multilateralism. But a regional agreement between collaborative LICs, MICs, and HICs is more likely and could obtain similar effects. China’s BRI demonstrates that LICs and MICs are willing to partner with HICs when they receive sufficient investment. Furthermore, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have explored regional agreements focused entirely on the bioeconomy. It is undeniable that the international community is interested in developing agreements pertaining to the bioeconomy, even if agreements cannot be reached between all nations. Nonetheless, bilateral and regional agreements should still be approached with caution by recipient nations to avoid diminished food security, intellectual property theft, or other unintended consequence.

Most SDGs involve biological resources; therefore, the UN provides a level of governance to the bioeconomy and influences nations to establish hard laws and policies on the matter. While the SDGs do not offer any binding legal agreement between member nations, they do promote soft law and general awareness of sustainable options in the bioeconomy. This can contribute to the election or appointment of internationally-minded leaders who consider the benefit of global agreements that protect and develop the bioeconomy. The true legally binding enforcement under the UN stems from the agreements adopted into member nations’ laws and can be adjudicated in the ICJ under Article 38. This provides enforceability to international commitments, but this UN function is more difficult to access than the WTO’s dispute settlement function because it requires that the agreement be adopted into national law. Alternatively, UNCTAD’s Memorandum of Understanding with the WTO could offer another platform for nations to obtain enforceability support on bioeconomic agreements.

B. High-Income Countries

The involvement of HICs will substantially affect less powerful nations’ ability to leverage their bioeconomy in world markets. While many countries have bioeconomy strategies, each policy ranges widely in terms of international involvement. The policies and laws in the U.S. and China demonstrate this range and the potential impacts to partnering nations.

The PRC recognizes the benefit it can gain through the biological resources in other countries, especially those with rich biodiversity. China is actively establishing international agreements regarding all aspects of the bioeconomy. A vast majority of the lowest-income countries have agreed to partner with China to increase their international trade opportunities. Increased funding for research and development also demonstrates China’s commitment to dominating this field. With these actions in mind, there will undoubtedly be opportunities for nations with biological resources to supply the PRC’s growing bioindustry. But it is essential that protections are in place to protect these nations from the negative externalities of increased trade and agreement with a great-power nation.

Alternatively, the U.S. bioeconomy policies and laws fail to address its international involvement substantively. Its strategy, formulated from executive orders and legislation, focuses on domestic bioeconomy growth through research and development and job creation. Any mention of international involvement only generally addresses global cooperation without detail. Arguably, the U.S. policy may indicate that the government is allowing domestic private business to lead global bioeconomic involvement. These priorities indicate that the U.S. government will be less participatory than the PRC in developing the international bioeconomy, but U.S. businesses and markets will continue to be an asset. The U.S. is consistently ranked as a leading nation for free trade. Unless a nation has sanctions placed upon it, any nation benefits from economic freedom in the U.S. or “(1) personal choice, (2) voluntary exchange coordinated by markets, (3) freedom to enter and compete in markets, and (4) protection of persons and their property from aggression by others.” Therefore, a MIC or LIC has market access in the U.S., but may not see as many development inspired investments in the bioeconomy directly unless it is originating from a NGO or business.

C. Middle-Income Countries & Low-Income Countries

International organizations and HICs must be involved for lower-income nations to overcome challenges faced while maximizing their bioeconomy sustainably. Colombia and Rwanda’s policies demonstrate that lower-income nations are attempting to take advantage of the biodiversity and bioindustry located within their countries. Unfortunately, these policies will not be enough to overcome hostile markets and achieve convergence alone. These countries often lack the international influence to be overly selective between the agreements that are presented to them by HICs, and as a result they find themselves as collateral to geopolitics. Additionally, even if current policies are executed, governance is often unreliable in similarly situated nations because of corruption. Multi-level governance proposes solutions to these concerns because it offers enforceability mechanisms outside of bilateral agreements with political underpinnings and unreliable domestic legal systems.

Often, HIC support of MICs and LICs comes in the form of bilateral monetary aid, but this is not adequate to ensure sustainable bioeconomic production for the growing population. Collier argues budget support is not sufficient in addressing challenges unless there is already reasonable governance in the receiving country. Alternative options include external military intervention, HICs’ domestic laws preventing corruption, enforcement of international standards and codes, and alterations to HICs trade policy. Essentially, for the bioeconomy to be proactively insulated from the dangers of poor governance in lower-income nations, there must be multi-level involvement from various nations and organizations.

Unfortunately, increased multi-level involvement is not a simple, catch-all solution because it presents additional concerns for less powerful nations. With increasing frequency, lower-income countries find themselves wedged between geopolitical struggles. When a country accepts investment or enters a trade agreement with a HIC, they occasionally find an “exploitative nature of relationships structured mainly for the benefit of donor countries, foreign companies and/or local political elites.” Granted, “recipient countries do not want to be pressured into ‘choosing sides’ between great powers, nor do they relish being told what they can or cannot do.” The concern remains that engagement between HICs, MICs, and LICs can have diplomatic repercussions far outside of the written agreements. Therefore, it is reasonable to anticipate that any effort from an HIC to establish multilevel governance for the bioeconomy will invoke hesitation for fear of agreeing to additional diplomatic agendas. For bioeconomic synergies to be obtained, international organizations, or another safeguard, must be involved to prevent MIC and LIC manipulation.

IV. Conclusion

There must be multilevel governance to maximize the full benefit of the bioeconomy while ensuring that demand of the growing population is sustainably met. This will require involvement from international organizations and all countries. As the world order continues to evolve, it is unlikely that an entire global agreement, such as the WTO’s AoA, will be obtained for the bioeconomy. But multilevel governance for the bioeconomy can still be obtained through domestic adoption of laws, bilateral agreements, regional agreements, and involvement from organizations capable of enforcing international law. These sources of international governance would help obtain the full benefit of global bioresources.

This proposed multilevel governance may look slightly different for each nation as it combines international law, trade agreements, and domestic law. Ideally, this system should consider each nation’s unique bioeconomy vision while also providing consistency across the international forum. If nations wish to move toward this ideal construction of laws and governance, it will require heavy collaboration between nations and international organizations, such as the WTO and UN. Other international and even private organizations can provide assistance in this proposed multilevel governance, but there must be some legal structure providing enforceability of international law and agreement. Without this feature, there is no accountability to ensure that less powerful nations are protected from their great-power counterparts.

It is necessary to evaluate the responsibilities of involved parties in proposed global governance. First, international organizations, generally, should play a significant role in the governance of the international bioeconomy. Together, the WTO and UN are positioned strategically to provide much-needed support. These two institutions are essential because they support competition and reward innovation, which can transform the international bioeconomy. The WTO’s dispute settlement apparatus and the UN’s SDGs position these two organizations to incentivize nations to work together. While the UN provides political leverage and draws attention to SDGs related to the bioeconomy, the WTO liberalizes trade, opens negotiations, sets trade rules, and settles disputes that would hinder the global bioeconomy.

The WTO serves a unique role because the organization operates by consensus, provides a negotiation forum, and can enforce rules and agreements. This facilitates open international markets that all nations can use when leveraging their bioeconomy. The WTO protects all nations’ ability to seek and obtain redress for unfair trade practices, regardless of global power. This is important to MICs and LICs when they trade with other nations because settling a dispute is costly and requires extensive resources (e.g., attorneys, economists, data, and research). If the organization was unable to provide actual redress for wronged nations, MICs and LICs would be deterred from initiating a dispute because of the cost. Equal rights for nations seeking settlement and ability to enforce dispute outcomes must be maintained in the multi-level governance of bioeconomic trade. Otherwise, there will be no incentive to correct unfair practices and likely nations would be deterred from taking such action for fear of retaliation from trade partners.

Unfortunately, the WTO’s ability to adapt to 21st-century trade has been questioned recently. Initially, the AoA and the organization’s ability to settle disputes demonstrated that the WTO was fully capable of opening markets and decreasing unfair trade practices. Since the organization operates by consensus, it has not been able to conclude a trade round since the AoA in 1994. If the WTO were to expand its role in governing the emerging global bioeconomy, then a new agreement addressing the unique aspects of the bioeconomy must be adopted. Otherwise, the organization will continue to serve as its current role, a forum for general trade negotiations, monitoring, and dispute. Considering the failed Doha negotiations, it is unlikely that a consensus would be met for a new agreement relating to the bioeconomy. Without set rules for the bioeconomy, MICs and LICs may lack the trade power to fully maximize the benefit derived from their biological resources. The WTO has the foundational structure to regulate this trade area, but there must be international consensus to establish trade rules that reflect the unique aspects of the global bioeconomy.

Turning to the UN, this organization is not known for enforcement capabilities in global markets like the WTO but still provides much-needed support to nations through the SDGs. By bringing attention to these goals, it incentivizes the international order to prioritize the bioeconomy. Even as soft law, it promotes the adoption of these priorities into domestic law that countries can enforce. Ideally, the UN SDGs would bring attention and support to the global bioeconomy’s promotion of sustainable growth, which would latter turn into adopted domestic laws in member nations, international conventions, or international customs that can be enforced by the ICJ via Article 38.

Even if the WTO and UN cannot adapt to the new international order, multilevel governance supporting bioeconomies is still achievable. Lack of global consensus does not restrict the opportunities available via regional and bilateral agreements. These agreements are uniquely positioned to facilitate international bioeconomic trade expansion. Countries can survey their international neighbors and allies for opportunities to collaborate. For example, the PRC prioritizes infrastructure investment in MICs and LICs through the BRI and this expands bioeconomic trade opportunity for receiving countries. By contrast, U.S. policies are much more domestically focused, but markets remain free and unrestricted by excessive tariffs. Therefore, as MICs and LICs make regional and bilateral agreements, it is in their best interest to target the countries whose policies naturally align with their agenda and priorities. With this in mind, trade agreements must protect the nations from being exploited by powerful partners that can attach other geopolitical commitments.

Alternatively, nations can partner with regionally similar countries to strengthen their international voice and leverage the regions unique bioeconomy. These partnerships grant them more power to negotiate globally and may prevent extraneous geopolitical agreements. While these regional strategies are obtainable, the long-term efficacy of these options are questionable. Bilateral and regional agreements are challenging to maintain and enforce because they rely more heavily on the ability of domestic governance and enforcement.

Trade agreements and international organizations with enforceability mechanisms are only partial solutions to the multilevel governance required by the emerging bioeconomy. To meet the demands of the growing population, the world must identify solutions to persistent conflict, corruption, and geographic struggles that undermine the bioeconomy in LICs and some MICs. Jeffery Sachs stated, “Unless we combine economic growth with social inclusion and environmental sustainability . . . economic gains are likely to be short-lived, as they will be followed by social instability and a rising frequency of environmental catastrophes.” Solutions involving the bioeconomy provide long-term solutions to challenges associated with growth and sustainability, but the world must still assist nations plagued with conflict and corruption to obtain the benefits of the bioeconomy. If conflict and bad governance traps cannot be overcome, these nations will not be able to converge with the rest of the global economy and will not prosper.

The world must support and protect the global bioeconomy to sustain the future population. Development and governance of biological resources is complicated, and hundreds of theories aim to alleviate poverty, promote economic growth, and sustain the global population. Ultimately, cross-cutting action is needed to address these challenges effectively and efficiently. The bioeconomy offers a forum for cross-cutting action related to agriculture, the environment, business, technology, manufacturing, energy, and many other sectors, yet governance is still lacking for this evolving area of trade. International organizations must have the power and resources to enforce international laws. As a result, the international order should develop and act on a sophisticated, multilevel governance system for the bioeconomy. This includes updated trade rules specifically addressing the overlaps between bioeconomic trade and SDGs. Only then will the bioeconomy satisfy global demand for future generations.

Economic growth alludes to the creation of opportunity, but as Peter Scher stated, this is not preordained. Only when the international order establishes multi-level governance for the global bioeconomy will future demand be satisfied for all nations. This will require deliberate action from all countries and international organizations to establish international law that can be enforced. Geopolitics, one-sided policies, corruption, and short-sighted development projects are substantial barriers preventing reliable, multi-level governance. Regardless, the bioeconomy provides a bright future where the demand for biological resources is sustainably achieved. Establishing enforceable commitments from nations and international organizations serve as the legal building blocks necessary for world markets to efficiently produce necessary resources. The international order should use these building blocks to take the deliberate action needed to secure economic growth and opportunity.

The views and opinions of the author are her own and do not state or reflect the views of any other organization.