Among others, we have written about the technology race between the U.S. and China regarding artificial intelligence, 5G technology and quantum computing. Less well-known, but potentially much more important, is their race for biotechnology leadership. Indeed, both countries have labelled biotech a top priority for national security and invest heavily in research and development. In other words, while digital technology is crucial to economic growth, the basic survival of a nation may depend more on innovation in food and healthcare.
Food security has always been a major driver of geopolitical conflict. This explains why food is among the prime targets of the looming trade war. In fact, China may impose tariffs on genetically engineered soybeans (for which it only approved imports six months ago). Not only would this move hit Trump’s base, it could also provide an opportunity for Chinese agriculture to catch up with American skills in biotech.
Regardless of whether both countries will persist in imposing steep tariffs on food, a technology race around biotechnology seems inevitable and would, by all means, be more productive. Recent advances in biotechnology, CRISPR being the most explicit example, suggest that expertise on this will become of greater strategic importance for food security. At the same time, biotech (in all shapes and forms) is an ethically challenging endeavor which calls for a careful step-by-step approach. With competing nations dashing to the finish line, a full-blown technology race could easily jeopardize such cautiousness.