There is nothing natural about agriculture, when you think about it

All natural eggs! Naturally raised chickens! Natural tofu! If ‘natural’ is so good, then why doesn’t Ford claim a natural pickup, or Apple an all-natural iPhone?

Challenge claims

Maybe it’s because there is nothing natural about a Ford pickup or an iPhone, yet they are among some of the best things ever made for humankind (although some Chevy owners might disagree with the Ford pickup claim…).

So why do we let the claim of natural eggs, chickens and tofu go unchallenged when there is nothing natural about agriculture. The issue of the ‘naturality’ of agriculture was in fact settled over 10,000 years ago.

Nature not static

Nature is not kind and benign. The competition among living organisms for photons (sunshine, the energy source for all photosynthetic plants), water, space, and food has always been, is, and will remain intense as long as we have living things on this planet.

Natural selection is not a gentle process: Babies get eaten and most adults do not live long enough to retire, let alone to even reproduce. In nature, there is no advantage for a deer to be tastier than its cousin, for a head of lettuce to be crispier than another, or for a tomato to be larger and juicier. In fact, most of the attributes that we seek in human food would be deleterious for a species in the wild.

Those species that we have domesticated through artificial selection have acquired traits that would ensure their demise in the wild.

There is nothing natural to a field of cultivated wheat, corn, or soybean. Wheat is a grass and its cultivation originated about 11,000 years ago in Southwest Asia (present day Turkey and Iraq, among other places). The repeated harvesting and sourcing of wild grasses in a monoculture (a completely unnatural setup) led to the emergence of domestic strains with very different characteristics than those found in their wild cousins.

Wheat selection

Early farmers preferably chose mutant forms of wheat. This was when artificial (as opposed to natural) selection was first used. The traits that were selected would make the domesticated form of wheat unsuited for survival in the wild.

For example, in cultivated wheat, the grain remains attached to the plant by a toughened rachis. In wild wheat, the rachis is very fragile and the grain easily falls to the ground. In the wild, a wheat plant that wouldn’t easily drop its seeds to the ground would be at a considerable disadvantage and would be rapidly eliminated by natural selection.

The attributes of the wheat that we grow on our farms are maintained and enhanced by artificial selection, a process that by its own nature is ‘unnatural’, but awfully good to humankind.

Unnatural agriculture

There is nothing natural to a bovine producing thousands of pounds of milk for another species. There is nothing natural for a pig, cattle, or chicken to be tasty.

There is nothing natural to any form of agriculture, would it be conventional, artisanal, organic, holistic, or whatever ‘al’ or ‘ic’ will be invented next. There is nothing natural because the foundation of agriculture is implicitly unnatural. Yet, agriculture has been and remains very, very good to humankind.

It is because of agriculture that humans were able to settle in permanent settlements (villages, towns, cities). It is because of agriculture that most of us can think of, and create new things for the betterment of humankind without having to worry whether there will be something to eat today.

If your teenager has any doubt about this, remind him/her that Steve Jobs could not have invented the iPod if every day he had to worry of where food was to be found. The hunter-gatherer way of life is neither easy, fun, nor conducive to momentous technical advances.

There is nothing natural in GMOs, but there is nothing natural in any artificially selected seeds used by any agriculture. There is no such a thing as a natural alfalfa grown using any agricultural practice. No alfalfa is more natural than any others.

Problem?

The problem is that we have been so conditioned into thinking that ‘natural’ is good that it is hard for our poor little brain to abandon this false concept of natural goodness. In this world, there are some goods things and some bad things, but natural has nothing to do with either.

About the Author

Normand St-Pierre is an Extension dairy specialist at Ohio State University. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460. More Stories by Normand St-Pierre

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