Why do so many people equate “natural” with “good”?

Dec 3, JDN 2458091

Try searching sometime for “all-natural” products. It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking for dog food, skin cream, clothing, or even furniture polish; you will find some out there that proudly declare themselves “all-natural”. There is a clear sense that there is something good about being natural, some kind of purity that comes from being unsullied by industrial technology. (Of course, when you buy something online that is shipped to you in a box carried on a truck because it’s “all-natural”….)

Food is the most extreme case, where it is by now almost universally agreed that processed food is inherently harmful and the source of all of our dietary problems if not all our social ills.

This is a very strange state of affairs, as there is no particular reason for “natural” and “good” to be in any way related.

First of all, I can clearly come up with examples of all four possible cases: Motherhood is natural and good, but gamma ray bursts are natural and bad. Vaccination is artificial and good, but nuclear weapons are artificial and bad.

Natural Artificial
Good Motherhood Vaccination
Bad Gamma ray bursts Nuclear weapons

But even more than that, it’s difficult to even find a correlation between being natural and being good. If anything, I would expect the correlation to run the other way: Artificial things were created by humans to serve some human purpose, while natural things are simply whatever happens to exist. Most of the harmful artificial things are the result of mistakes, or unintended consequences of otherwise beneficial things—while plenty of harmful natural things are simply inherently harmful and never benefited anyone in any way. Nuclear weapons helped end World War 2. Gamma ray bursts will either hardly affect us at all, or instantly and completely annihilate our entire civilization. I guess they might also lead to some valuable discoveries in astrophysics, but if I were asked to fund a research project with the same risk-reward profile as a gamma ray burst, I would tear up the application and make sure no one else ever saw it again. The kind of irrational panic people had about the possibility of LHC black holes would be a rational panic if applied to a research project with some risk of causing gamma ray bursts.

The current obsession with “natural” products (which is really an oxymoron, if you think about it; it can’t be natural if it’s a product) seems to have arisen as its own unintended consequence of something good, namely the environmentalist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. The very real problems of pollution, natural resource depletion, extinction, global warming, desertification, and ocean acidification led people to rightly ask how the very same industrial processes that brought us our high standard of living could ultimately destroy it if we left them unchecked.

But the best solutions to these problems are themselves artificial: Solar power, nuclear energy, carbon taxes. Trying to go back to some ancient way of life where we didn’t destroy the environment is simply not a viable option at this point; even if such a way of life once existed, there’s no way it could sustain our current population, much less our current standard of living. And given the strong correlation between human migrations and extinction events of large mammals, I’m not convinced that such a way of life ever existed.

So-called “processed food” is really just industrially processed food—which is to say, food processed by the most efficient and productive technologies available. Humans have been processing food for thousands of years, and with very good reason; much of what we eat would be toxic if it weren’t threshed or boiled or fermented. The fact that there are people who complain about “processed food” but eat tofu and cheese is truly quite remarkable—think for a moment about how little resemblance Cheddar bears to the cow from whence it came, or what ingenuity it must have taken people in ancient China to go all the way from soybean to silken tofu. Similarly, anyone who is frightened by “genetically modified organisms” should give some serious thought to what is involved in creating their seedless bananas.

There may be some kernel of truth in the opposition to industrially processed food, however. The problem is not that we process food, nor that we do so by industrial machines. The problem is who processes the food, and why.

Humans have been processing food for thousands of years, yes; but only for the last few hundred have corporations been doing that processing. For most of human history, you processed food to feed your family, or your village, or perhaps to trade with a few neighboring villages or sell to the nearest city. What makes tofu different from, say, Fruit Loops isn’t that the former is less processed; it’s that the latter was designed and manufactured for profit.

Don’t get me wrong; corporations have made many valuable contributions to our society, including our food production, and it is largely their doing that food is now so cheap and plentiful that we could easily feed the entire world’s population. It’s just that, well, it’s also largely their doing that we don’t feed the entire world’s population, because they see no profit in doing so.

The incentives that a peasant village faces in producing its food are pretty well optimized for making the most nutritious food available with the least cost in labor and resources. When your own children and those of your friends and neighbors are going to be eating what you make, you work pretty hard to make sure that the food you make is good for them. And you don’t want to pollute the surrounding water or destroy the forest, because your village depends upon those things too.

The incentives that a corporation faces in producing food are wildly different. Nobody you know is going to be eating this stuff, most likely, and certainly not as their primary diet. You aren’t concerned about nutrition unless you think your customers are; more likely, you expect them to care about taste, so you optimize your designs to make things taste as good as possible regardless of their nutrition. You care about minimizing labor inputs only insofar as they cost you wages—from your perspective, cutting wages is as good as actually saving labor. You want to conserve only the resources that are expensive; resources that are cheap, like water and (with subsidies) corn syrup, you may as well use as much as you like. And above all, you couldn’t care less about the environmental damage you’re causing by your production, because those costs will be borne entirely by someone else, most likely the government or the citizens of whatever country you’re producing in.

Responsible consumers could reduce these effects, but only somewhat, because there is a fundamental asymmetry of information. The corporation “knows” (in that each of the administrators in each of the components that needs to know, knows) what production processes they are using and what subcontractors they are hiring, and could easily figure out how much they are exploiting workers and damaging the environment; but the consumers who care about these things can find out that information with great difficulty, if at all. Consumers who want to be responsible, but don’t have very good information, create incentives for so-called “greenwashing”: Corporations have many good profit-making reasons to say they are environmentally responsible, but far fewer reasons to actually be environmentally responsible.

And that is why you should be skeptical of “all-natural” products, especially if you are skeptical of the role of corporations in our society and our food system. “All-natural” is an adjective that has no legal meaning. The word “organic” can have a legally-defined meaning, if coupled with a certification like the USDA Organic standard. The word “non-toxic” has a legally-defined meaning—there is a long list of toxic compounds it can’t contain in more than trace amounts. There are now certifications for “carbon-neutral”. But “all-natural” offers no such protection. Basically anything can call itself “all-natural”, and if corporations expect you to be willing to pay more for such products, they have no reason not to slap it on everything. This is a problem that I think can only be solved by stringent regulation. Consumer pressure can’t work if there is no transparency in the production chain.

Even taken as something like its common meaning, “not synthetic or artificial”, there’s no reason to think that simply because something is natural, that means it is better, or even more ecologically sustainable. The ecological benefits of ancient methods of production come from the incentives of small-scale local production, not from something inherently more destructive about high-tech industry. (Indeed, water pollution was considerably worse from Medieval peasant villages—especially on a per-capita basis—than it is from modern water treatment systems.)