Food, natural and unnatural

This story on Vox.com gives a pretty eye-opening look at how humans have altered the natural world. It also sheds light on a pet peeve of mine.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Look, there is nothing inherently great about stuff that’s “natural” or “organic” or what have you. Short of the Garden of Eden, there was not some golden age of agriculture when we all lived in harmony with nature, until villainous corporations came in and imposed their Godless ways in search for greater profit. In truth, humans have been drastically altering the planet since the Neolithic Revolution, and during that time, farmers have been at the forefront of tearing up the natural order and refashioning it to make it more convenient for mankind.

Tarzan fought bravely to protect the wild, majestic cows from enslavement, but even he wasn't strong enough to stand up to Big Agriculture.
Tarzan fought bravely to protect the wild, majestic cows from enslavement, but even he wasn’t strong enough to stand up to Big Agriculture.

“Genetic engineering” isn’t some voodoo technology that was cooked up by the mad scientists at Monsanto a few years ago. As the Vox article shows, farmers have been “genetically engineering” their plants and animals ever since they started raising crops and domesticating livestock. Pretty much every food you eat and every animal species you’ve had extensive contact with has been wildly distorted by humans to serve their own ends. In some cases, these species have become so out of touch with their “wild,” natural origins that they’re dependent on humans for their very survival. You’ve never seen a wild Auroch before, but while those huge beasts once ruled the forests of Northern Europe, their ungainly descendants you see lumbering around in fields today — you know them as “cows” — would quickly be driven to extinction if humans weren’t around to look after them.

In fact, sometimes our mania for “natural” forms of agriculture goes so far overboard that it actually drives us to extremely unnatural practices. Though it’s possible to buy vegan cat food, the general consensus is that it’s not very good for the cats. Even I fall victim to this sometimes. Up until a week or so ago, I was still buying eggs from hens fed a “vegetarian” diet — hey, I thought it was healthier. Then I read an article pointing out that chickens are not vegetarians — something I probably would have known if I’d grown up on a farm — and that restricting them to a vegetarian diet is, as with cats, probably not very healthy.

In his famous paradox of the fence, Chesterton noted the regrettable tendency for zealous reformers to presume they know better than their forebears. When a person who has no knowledge of the original state of affairs takes it upon themselves to criticize an old practice or institution, they should first make sure they know exactly why that tradition came into existence:

Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody, and until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease.

With that in mind, I think the best way to end this is with some observations from an actual farmer whose humble “family farm” thoroughly embraces many of the “industrial agriculture” methods that our betters are always lecturing us about:

I’m so tired of people who wouldn’t visit a doctor who used a stethoscope instead of an MRI demanding that farmers like me use 1930s technology to raise food. Farming has always been messy and painful, and bloody and dirty. It still is.

He goes on to add, regarding a critic he encountered on an airplane:

He was a businessman, and I’m sure spends his days with spreadsheets, projections, and marketing studies. He hasn’t used a slide rule in his career and wouldn’t make projections with tea leaves or soothsayers. He does not blame witchcraft for a bad quarter, or expect the factory that makes his product to use steam power instead of electricity, or horses and wagons to deliver his products instead of trucks and trains. But he expects me to farm like my grandfather, and not incidentally, I suppose, to live like him as well. He thinks farmers are too stupid to farm sustainably, too cruel to treat their animals well, and too careless to worry about their communities, their health, and their families. I would not presume to criticize his car, or the size of his house, or the way he runs his business. But he is an expert about me, on the strength of one book, and is sharing that expertise with captive audiences every time he gets the chance. Enough, enough, enough.

The author — again, a real live farmer — should know.

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One thought on “Food, natural and unnatural

  1. One thing I personally worry about is the link between hormone and steroid use in meat and dairy products. As I understand (from reading totally scientific sources like Huff Post and The New Yorker), growth and sex hormones used in beef and dairy products are largely unregulated and could be linked to all sorts of stuff I’d like to avoid: Breast cancer, obesity, precocious puberty in girls and the like. I don’t care about this so much for myself, but if I had children its something I would totally be aware of and probably militant about.

    Anyway, welcome back to blogging. The internet loves you!

    Like

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