Friday, 3 April 2009


Through Taste T.O., I read this article on "natural" meat at The Atlantic, and was prompted to put together a few thoughts of my own on the topic.

The use of the word "natural" as a description of certain kinds of foods has always made me a touch uneasy, and looking at the comments following the article, it's clear I am not alone.

What the hell does "natural" mean when it pertains to food? And why, in fact, should it mean anything particular?

Human beings have always seen themselves as a creation separate from the rest of the planet - let's call it "nature" for short. It wasn't until the rise of the Romantic movement in the late 18th century that this was seen as anything but a good and desirable thing, at which point suddenly all the trendy folks wanted to be at one with nature. Not coincidentally, this was the era of the rise of industrialism. The sudden ability of humans to produce - and pollute - on a scale hitherto unimaginable began a new era of ambiguity about ourselves and our works. And let me be perfectly clear: this ambiguity is a good thing. We should be concerned with the effects of what we do.

The trouble is, this idea that we are separate from nature is a false dichotomy. We are animals*; part of nature, using materials found on this planet and our own evolved intelligences. As such, nothing we do is "unnatural". Undesirable, unsustainable, unhealthy, unjust, bloody stupid and even sometimes malicious, but not unnatural.

Consequently, I don't see how any meaningful legal definition of "natural" meat or other foods is to be determined. If you are going to take the view that what human beings do is separate from nature, then all of agriculture becomes unnatural. Or even hunting with anything more technologically advanced than your hands and teeth, which let me tell you, I am not about take up.

I sympathize with the desire for a simple term that will separate the food we want to eat from the food we don't want to eat. But the more I consider the, uh, nature of food and the way we access it in our society, the more it becomes clear that there is no simple term because there is no simple determination of "good" food or "bad" food.

Sure, we can say that ideally, food should be nutritious, raised and slaughtered in a humane manner, grown and harvested in a way that benefits farmers and farm workers more than corporations, doesn't damage the environment through toxic chemicals applied at the growing point or by the petro-chemicals required for packaging and shipping, and it would be jolly nice if it tasted half-way decent too. That's just not simple, and it never will be.

That list is only somewhat dependant on "nature". I'm afraid the word that comes to mind is "politics". And that's one of the main reasons I eat as much local food as I do. Like most people, the only politics I really have any level of input into are relatively local; my region, my province and my country.

Do you think that we will ever see "political food shops" instead of "natural food shops"? It doesn't have the same marketing appeal, but it would be a little more grounded in reality.

* Am I the only one who looks around and thinks, "Jeez! Look at all these crazy apes!"? I don't think so. And if anyone doubts that we are apes, let me direct your attention to the comments section of any topic of political interest on any well-read internet site. Read, inwardly digest, return, look me in the eye, and tell me we aren't primates. I promise to laugh, point and throw peanuts at you.


Darcy said...

You could say the same thing about "organic". I've seen people argue to me--with a straight face--"All food is organic! It's made of hydrocarbons!"

At some level it's stupid marketing, but at another, having stringent rules and guidelines that a producer needs to follow in order to be able to label themselves "organic" or "natural" is helpful to the consumer.

And I'd personally rather see meat producers develop a "natural" label that they can use for supermarket meats rather than water down the very high standard for "organic" meats.

Ferdzy said...

Ack, yes!

Now you make me realize I've left out, or at least glossed over, my main point.

Standards are absolutely required, but they can't be vague, nice-sounding words. They have to be specific. And specific means as complex as necessary, and with regulatory bodies to back them up.

The trouble with "organic" is, in spite of how complex the regulations are, it still doesn't even touch on three-quarters of the issues I raised, and as we are now seeing, there are a great number of corporations out there who are more interested in the letter of the organic law than the spirit, with the result that there are a number of "organic" foods I'm just not very interested in buying.

Thank you very much for commenting.