How does the World Trade Organisation know? The mobilization and staging of scientific expertise in the GMO trade dispute

Bonneuil, Christophe and Levidow, Les (2012). How does the World Trade Organisation know? The mobilization and staging of scientific expertise in the GMO trade dispute. Social Studies of Science, 42(1) pp. 75–100.



The World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement procedure is a key arena for establishing global legal norms for what counts as relevant knowledge. As a high-profile case, the WTO trade dispute on GMOs mobilized scientific expertise in somewhat novel ways. Early on, the Panel put the dispute under the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement through a new legal ontology; it classified transgenes as potential pests and limited all environmental issues to the ‘plant and animal health’ category. The selection of scientific experts sought a multi-party consensus through a fast adversarial process, reflecting a specific legal epistemology. For the SPS framing, focusing on the defendant’s regulatory procedures, the Panel staged scientific expertise in specific ways that set up how experts were questioned, the answers they would give, their specific role in the legal arena, and the way their statements would complement the Panel’s findings. In these ways, the dispute settlement procedure co-produced legal and scientific expertise within the Panel’s SPS framework. Moreover, the Panel operated a procedural turn in WTO jurisprudence by representing its findings as a purely legal-administrative judgement on whether the EC’s regulatory procedures violated the SPS Agreement, while keeping implicit its own judgements on substantive risk issues. As this case illustrates, the WTO settlement procedure mobilizes scientific expertise for sophisticated, multiple aims: it recruits a source of credibility from the scientific arena, thus reinforcing the standard narrative of ‘science-based trade discipline’, while also constructing new scientific expertise for the main task – namely, challenging trade restrictions for being unduly cautious.

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