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The unnatural nature of food

Matt Ridley

August 2022

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

What could be more natural than organically grown Golden Promise barley, used to make craft-brewed pale ale?


As one artisan brewer boasts: “The Golden Promise malt, showcased in this pale ale, is an early-maturing spring barley from Scotland. It has a very clean sweetness and a prominent biscuity flavour that is perfect for UK-style pale ales with their rich and malty flavour profiles.”


Only hang on a minute.


Golden Promise was produced in 1965 by irradiating barley seeds with gamma rays from Cobalt 60 isotopes provided by the Harwell Atomic Energy Research Establishment to a profit-seeking plant breeding firm.


It was one of the first fruits of this new high-tech approach to scrambling the genomes of plants by busting their DNA in random ways in the hope of haphazardly generating valuable new forms of variation. Known as ‘mutation breeding’, some 2500 crop varieties have been bred in this way.


And yet Golden Promise is considered ‘natural’ none the less. Indeed, it is a favourite crop among organic farmers.


By contrast, consider the case of genetically modified Bt maize.


This maize variety has never been near a nuclear plant but has had placed within it an entirely natural gene derived from an entirely naturally occurring bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis - indeed a bacterium that has itself been used as a crop protection product by organic farmers since the 1930s.


Bt insect resistance is a technology that reduces the need for man-made chemical sprays, relying instead on proteins made within organisms - arguably a far more natural product, therefore, and certainly in any normal definition of the word “organic”. 


Yet organic farmers reject this crop variety as unnatural, even though it uses the same protein molecules as their own sprays, because they say it is not “natural” for a plant to contain a bacterial gene.


Actually, that’s not true. We now know that there is horizontal gene transfer between plants and bacteria, quite naturally, in the wild.


For example, the sweet potato contains a number of genes that were transferred naturally from Agrobacterium sometime during the last few million years. God in this case had played God.


But this was not known at the time the organic movement set up their rules, and they decided that a line has been crossed by genetic engineering that was not crossed by using the bacterium as a pesticide or by irradiating barley with gamma rays. And they have chosen not to change their rules since it became known.


So what are the criteria by which we decide when something has become “unnatural”.


The word “natural” is the single biggest selling point on any food item in a grocery store. It’s widely used and there are absolutely no rules about when you can or cannot use it.


But what does it mean in the context of food?


Does it mean made by a natural, biological process within a living wild organism and untouched thereafter - in which case almost nothing qualifies?


Does it mean organic? That is to say, farmed but without chemical fertiliser? In which case it’s a very arbitrary definition.


Does it mean healthy? That is to say low-carb, low-fat, low-sugar or something? In which case you have to face the fact that lots of natural things are bad for you - deadly nightshade, destroying angel mushrooms etc. 


Does it mean ethical? That is to say produced without exploiting somebody or some animal? Well, why is that natural? A pigeon shot by a farmer is surely natural meat but it would hardly get the RSPCA‘s approval.


Does it mean sustainable? That is to say, needing the least land and resources? Well, the best way to use the least land, water and other imports is probably to farm as intensively as possible.  


The fact is, there is no single common definition or understanding of the term “natural”, a conclusion also reached by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in a 2015 analysis paper entitled ‘Ideas about naturalness in public and political debates about science, technology and medicine’.


Indeed, the Nuffield report found that the diversity and ambiguity of ideas associated with naturalness mean that people end up speaking at cross-purposes, or ‘talking past’ one another – using identical terms with different meanings – and thereby fail to fully understand one another.


The report warned that “effective communication on the ethics of science, technology, and medicine may be hindered, rather than helped, by appeals to naturalness”.


In a series of recommendations, the Nuffield report advised organisations and individuals contributing to public and political debates about science and technology, including policy-makers, politicians and journalists, to avoid using the terms ‘natural’, ‘unnatural’ and ‘nature’ without conveying the values or beliefs that underlie them.  


The report also warned that manufacturers and advertisers of food and health products should be cautious about describing a product as ‘natural’ given the ambiguity of this term and that it is unlawful to mislead consumers.


Since the terms ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ appear to have become synonymous and even more widely used in food marketing and advertising since the Nuffield Council on Bioethics produced its report, I will simply conclude with the thoughts of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in an open letter to the Prince of Wales some years ago:


“Agriculture has always been unnatural. Our species began to depart from our natural hunter-gatherer lifestyle as recently as 10,000 years ago - too short to measure on the evolutionary timescale. Wheat, be it ever so wholemeal and stoneground, is not a natural food for Homo sapiens. Nor is milk, except for children. Almost every morsel of our food is genetically modified - admittedly by artificial selection not artificial mutation, but the end result is the same. A wheat grain is a genetically modified grass seed, just as a Pekinese is a genetically modified wolf. Playing God? We’ve been playing god for centuries!”


This is the first in a series of articles by Matt Ridley exploring ‘naturalness’ in food and farming. Matt is a member of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory group. He is the author of numerous books on science. He has been a journalist and a businessman and served for nine years on the House of Lords. He lives on a farm in Northumberland.   

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