Transparency as Contested Political Terrain: Who Knows What about the Global GMO Trade and Why does it Matter?

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This article explores the prospects for transparency to be a transformative force in global biosafety governance. The global regime governing trade in genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, institutionalizes information disclosure as the central mechanism through which to govern safe transboundary transfers of GMOs. This paper analyses the scope and nature of disclosure obligations relating to GMOs in the bulk agricultural commodity trade, and the implications for the normative, procedural and substantive goals to be accomplished through disclosure. Through analyzing “whose right to know what and why” with regard to the global GMO trade, the paper finds that the limited disclosure currently institutionalized in this regime follows rather than shapes market developments and that complex infrastructures of sampling, testing, detection and verification have to be deployed by information recipients in an attempt to put disclosed information to use to meet desired ends. As a result, in practice, instead of a normative right to know of potential importing countries, a norm of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) prevails instead in global GMO trade. I conclude that the potential of transparency to empower is yet to be realized in this area, particularly for the poorest countries most reliant on globally-induced disclosure
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)32-52
JournalGlobal Environmental Politics
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • environmental governance
  • information disclosure

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