In the book of Genesis, it is made abundantly clear to Jews, Christians, and Muslims that humans are not destined to relate to the material world in the way that animals do. Instead, humans are expected to use their reason, creativity, and capacity to work in ways that express and extend man's dominion and stewardship over the earth.
To be sure, this theme of being a cooperator with God's Creative Act is not to be seen as a license for us to engage in wanton destructiveness and ecological irresponsibility. The Scriptures insist, over and over again, that none of our free choices may infringe God's moral law, a law knowable through faith and reason.
Humans are, nonetheless, given tremendous scope in the ways that they may fulfill their responsibility to “fill the earth and conquer it” (Gen 1:28). And from the beginning of history, humans have done this. Some of our earliest ancestors, for example, were the first to engage in cross-breeding animal species, cross-fertilizing plants, and using the insights of science to make food safer and more plentiful.
This is one reason why so many Christians, especially in the developing world, find the opposition to genetically modified food (overwhelmingly from wealthy Western nations – especially the European Union) to be somewhat puzzling. Despite all the evidence attesting to the safety of GM food, many environmental activists and movements persist in pressuring governments in the developed and developing world to restrict, if not totally prohibit, the implantation or use of GM food.
There are, however, signs that the pressures of feeding their populations are causing many developing countries to proceed cautiously down the path of allowing GM foods to be cultivated. In early June2004, the Kenyan government decided to support, with qualifications, the use of genetically modified organisms to increase agricultural yields, particularly by enhancing the resistance of crops to drought and diseases particular to East Africa. The object is, in part, to enhance Kenya's ability to feed its population.
A few thousand kilometers to Kenya's south, a rather different approach to dealing with hunger has been adopted. In Zimbabwe, the Mugabe dictatorship continues to destroy property rights by systematically expropriating the land of white Zimbabweans, and now black Zimbabweans. A number of those who resist have been killed. Rape has also been employed as a tool of intimidation. The relative silence of many Western governments, human rights activists, and even church groups about these matters is disturbing.
The result of the Mugabe dictatorship's efforts will, of course, be more corruption, economic chaos, and a continuing decline in Zimbabwe's ability to feed its population. All of this brings home the importance of rule of law and property rights for economic growth.
Over 700 years ago, Thomas Aquinas identified three reasons why private property was not only licit, but necessary. The first was that people tend to take better care of what is theirs than of what is common to everyone, since individuals tend to shirk a responsibility that is nobody's in particular (Summa Theologiae II-II, q.66, a.2).
In making this point, Aquinas implicitly acknowledged that incentives matter. Why, for instance, would anyone 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 of the regime? Why would anyone open a business in downtown Harare when they discover that it is impossible to have legitimate contracts enforced?
Of course, this points to the larger problem that cripples so many developing countries. It is not that they lack natural resources or creative entrepreneurs. These are possessed in abundance. It is that certain institutional preconditions for economic growth are missing, the most significant being rule of law and private property rights. If either of these components is absent, sustainable economic development is extremely difficult; corruption is certain
Guarantees of landownerships are not, however, the only property rights that need to be ensured. The intellectual property rights that are recognized through legal mechanisms such as patents are equally important for economic development. Without the incentives offered by the securing of such rights, the willingness of individuals or companies to engage in the type of costly, economically risky research that has resulted in so many of the products that make life comfortable for Westerners and potentially less burdensome for those living in developing nations, is inevitably diminished.
For this reason, the intellectual property rights acquired by those who have taken the risk of developing GM foods should not be trivialized. Secure and protected patents are, in fact, another way in which private property allows us to realize what Christians have always regarded as the purpose of material goods: the service and flourishing of each and every person.