Acton Commentary

Creativity, Property, and Patents: Lessons from GM Food


In the bookof Genesis, it is made abundantly clear to Jews, Christians, and Muslims thathumans are not destined to relate to the material world in the way that animalsdo. Instead, humans are expected to use their reason, creativity, and capacityto work in ways that express and extend man's dominion and stewardship over theearth.

To be sure, this theme of being acooperator with God's Creative Act is not to be seen as a license for us toengage in wanton destructiveness and ecological irresponsibility. TheScriptures insist, over and over again, that none of our free choices mayinfringe God's moral law, a law knowable through faith and reason.

Humans are, nonetheless, given tremendous scope inthe ways that they may fulfill their responsibility to “fill the earth andconquer it” (Gen 1:28). And from the beginning of history, humans have donethis. Some of our earliest ancestors, for example, were the first to engage incross-breeding animal species, cross-fertilizing plants, and using the insightsof science to make food safer and more plentiful.

This is onereason why so many Christians, especially in the developing world, find theopposition to genetically modified food (overwhelmingly from wealthy westernnations--especially the European Union) to be somewhat puzzling. Despite all theevidence attesting to the safety of GM food, many environmental activists andmovements persist in pressuring governments in the developed and developingworld to restrict, if not totally prohibit, the implantation or use of GM food.

There are, however, signs that the pressures offeeding their populations are causing many developing countries to proceedcautiously down the path of allowing GM foods to be cultivated. In early June2004, the Kenyan Government decided to support, with qualifications, the use of geneticallymodified organisms to increase agricultural yields,particularly by enhancing the resistance of crops to drought and diseases particularto East Africa. The object is, in part, to enhance Kenya's ability to feed itspopulation.

A few thousand kilometers to Kenya'ssouth, a rather different approach to dealing with hunger has been adopted. InZimbabwe, the Mugabe dictatorship continues to destroy property rights bysystematically expropriating the land of white Zimbabweans, and now blackZimbabweans. A number of those who resist have been killed. Rape has also beenemployed as a tool of intimidation. The relative silence of many Westerngovernments, human rights activists, and even church groups about these mattersis disturbing.

The result of the Mugabedictatorship's efforts will, of course, be more corruption, economic chaos, anda continuing decline in Zimbabwe's ability to feed its population. All of thisbrings home the importance of rule of law and property rights for economicgrowth.

Over 700 years ago, Thomas Aquinasidentified three reasons why private property was not only licit, butnecessary. The firstwas that people tend to take better care of what is theirs than of what iscommon to everyone, since individuals tend to shirk a responsibility that isnobody's in particular ( Summa Theologiae II-II, q.66, a.2).

In making this point, Aquinasimplicitly acknowledged that incentives matter . Why, for instance, wouldanyone take up private farming in a serious way in a country like Zimbabwe,when they cannot be sure that their land will be stolen from them by cronies ofthe regime? Why would anyone open a business in downtown Harare when theydiscover that it is impossible to have legitimate contracts enforced?

Of course, this points to thelarger problem that cripples so many developing countries. It is not that theylack natural resources or creative entrepreneurs. These are possessed inabundance. It is that certain institutional preconditions for economicgrowth are missing, the most significant being rule of law and private propertyrights. If either of these components is absent, sustainable economicdevelopment is extremely difficult; corruption is certain

Guarantees of landownerships are not, however, the only property rights that need to be ensured.The intellectual property rightsthat are recognized through legal mechanisms such as patents are equallyimportant for economic development. Without the incentives offered by thesecuring of such rights, the willingness of individuals or companies to engagein the type of costly, economically risky research that has resulted in so manyof the products that make life comfortable for Westerners and potentially lessburdensome for those living in developing nations, is inevitably diminished.

For this reason, theintellectual property rights acquired by those who have taken the risk ofdeveloping GM foods should not be trivialized. Secure and protected patentsare, in fact, another way in which private property allows us to realize whatChristians have always regarded as the purpose of material goods: the serviceand flourishing of each and every person.