Commentary: On the meaning of ‘natural’

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Like nuclear power, whale hunting and the use of preservatives before it, genetic modification has become a cause célèbre among the self-styled ecoscenti who care oh-so much about how far humanity has strayed from what’s “natural.”

But what is natural? It’s a slippery term to fully define, and one that has many meanings for many people.

Applied to animal agriculture, much of what constitutes modern production science is deemed “unnatural” by critics. Applied elsewhere, however, the tolerance level seems far broader.

Take seedless fruit, for instance. As far as Mother Nature’s concerned, that phrase is an oxymoron. The sole reason plants develop fruit is to propagate their seeds. The nutritional value of the fruit is merely a come-on to get animals to do the plant’s reproductive work for them.

But the very same “enlightened” folks who condemn GMOs have no problem with seedless fruit. In fact, seedless watermelons shouldn’t bother anyone, according to the National Watermelon Promotion Board. Here’s their explanation: “A seedless watermelon is a sterile hybrid created by crossing male pollen (with 22 chromosomes) for watermelon with a female watermelon flower (with 44 chromosomes). When the seeded fruit matures, the small white seed coats inside contain 33 chromosomes, rendering it sterile and incapable of producing seeds. This is similar to a mule, produced by crossing a horse with a donkey.”

Yeah, with one huge difference: People bred donkeys with horses because they wanted an animal more economical to feed than a horse but also a stronger pack animal than a burro. The resulting sterility was an unfortunate side effect; the sterility of seedless watermelon is intentional.

Now, regardless of your views on how natural a giant seedless fruit that never has and never will exist in nature might be, seedless watermelons represent a severe trade-off between taste and convenience. Just listen to what commenters have to say on the “What About Watermelon” website (a site that’s supposed to be devoted to praising seedless watermelons!):

  • “Seedless watermelons look good, have nice color but have no taste. I want the seedful watermelons back!”
  • “Seedless watermelons are tasteless, bland and too chewy. I’d pay double for a good seeded watermelon.”
  • “I forgot how delicious REAL watermelon was until I visited relatives in Italy. They don’t have seedless watermelons there, and my goodness! The taste was remarkable: Juicy, crisp, sweet—not dry and rubbery like a seedless.”
  • “Seedless melons are for people with sheep brains. My taste buds remember what real watermelons taste like. I refuse to buy seedless melons.”
  • “I’ve been growing watermelons for 50 years and selling to a local produce company and farmer’s market. I haven’t found a seedless variety yet that doesn’t taste like it was crossed with a cucumber. You won’t find me selling a seedless ‘cukemelon’, nor serving one to family and friends. I’ll spit seeds ‘til the day I die.”

In the midst of all this vitriol, however, there’s not one word suggesting that “modern” watermelons are not only tasteless but unnatural.

Pedigree, schmedigree

Or how about a more recent phenomenon. Ever heard of Dorkies, Schweeines, Beabulls or Cava-Tzu?

They’re the stars of the new wave of “designer dogs,” experimental cross-breeds that even the breeders admit they can’t always predict the characteristics, personalities and long-term health effects of these previously unknown canines.

I guess it’s no longer enough to own a registered breed, like a German shepherd, Labrador retriever or Irish setter. Or, heaven forbid, a “mixed breed” without any pedigree (which, one could argue, is exactly the description of a designer dog).

Even worse, these new wave breeders are busy creating larger, more powerful designer dogs for the macho male who wants something bigger and badder than a pit bull or a rottweiler. Such breeds as the Cane Corso, Tibetan mastiff and the African boerboel are, in the words of nationally know animal expert Terry Jester, “Dogs that make the pit bull look like a child’s stuffed toy in comparison.”

Yet where’s the public reaction to a trend that’s disturbing on several levels? There’s virtually none, other than a short-term, localized reaction when one of these dogs attacks somebody. And none of what little negativity there is touches on the idea that creating new lines of Frankenmutts might be a violation of what we used to consider the “natural order.”

Oh, no. That kind of deep-seated outrage is reserved for plants—horrible, evil plants created to resist herbicides. Nothing is more sacred than manual weeding, after all, and any scientist who figures out how to improve on that age-old chore must do so the way they did with seedless fruit and designer dogs.

You know, “naturally.”

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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Ben M.    
Wisconsin  |  June, 12, 2013 at 08:52 AM

The tres chic ethereal term "natural", like "sustainable", "processed", "factory farm", "ag-gag", etc, etc represents the professional art and science of modern sound bite propaganda. These are meaningless emotion-laden terms custom-made for moving the goal posts as arguments progress. Just like Charlie Brown kicking the football, Lucy pulls it back every time. We need to stop mouthing these activist words, we need to stop confronting activists on their topsy-turvy turf. We need to help other sane folks (and those are, in fact, the majority of us in spite of all the noise from the vocal activist minority) recognize when we hear one of those anti-food anti-farming activist buzzwords we are dealing with a certifiable whacko propagandist. Just quietly close the lid and back away from the activist slop jar. Won't be any embarrassing trouble that way.

Larry Liepold    
Okabena, MN  |  June, 12, 2013 at 09:18 AM

And we need to stop electing, and actively oppose the election of these activists and those that support them to be our "leaders".

MI  |  June, 12, 2013 at 09:39 AM

Excellent advice Ben. Here's another funny little sound bite: "american agriculture feeding the world..." Ignore the people who are thoughtful about where their food comes from, the environmental impact, the fact that our tax dollars subsidize turning oil into food, and food back into fuel at a loss of net energy. Keep telling us there is no difference from splicing genes to crossing a horse with a donkey. One of us will go away eventually.

Portland  |  June, 12, 2013 at 10:00 AM

I find seedless watermelons taste much, much better if they have been rigorously tended by stoop laborers according to the natural principles. Maybe something in the lackey's sweat gets sugar levels up in the plants. I don't know. But I definitely prefer the natural state of affairs where farm laborers remain poor and starving like in our history books while slaving away to keep me supplied with trendy organic eatables. It brings out the Marie Antoinette in me and I just love that luscious feeling!

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Wash.  |  June, 12, 2013 at 11:06 AM

There is a big difference between cross-breeding animals and deploying biotechnology. The former is a hit-and-miss. see-what-happens approach that often results in unexpected (and clearly negative) results. The latter is precise and specific and limits the change to exactly the desired trait. And by the way, if you oppose biotech, then you'd better start campaigning against in-vitro fertilization, amniocentesis and numerous other medical procedures, because they're based on the same science as genetic modification.

SW Okla  |  June, 12, 2013 at 11:57 AM

Ben - don't forget "harvest", as in "harvesting cattle". This is the same type of sound bite propaganda nonsense word that the ag community uses. Sorry - when I grew up we used the words "slaughter", "butcher" and "kill floor" at the packing plant. Now we use the words "harvest" and "process". It sounds much nicer doesn't it? Just don't forget that we in the ag world use propaganda to further our cause just as much as the other guys do.

IL  |  June, 12, 2013 at 12:10 PM

Well put Ben.

kansas  |  June, 12, 2013 at 02:46 PM

You know what's REALLY un-natural? - Difibrillators and CPR. As Mary Shelly's readers All knew, using electricity and other mechanical means to restart a heartbeat was just unholy, wrong and Horrifyingly Un-Natural! How dare we violate Mother Gaia's intent that we be worm-food, and the sooner the better. When you're heart stops beating, at that very moment, You Are Dead, and only a Ghoul would interfere with Nature, right? What Mr. Murphy misses here is the schizophrenic, rationalizing, narcissists modern society is made of these days. They can be dismissive and vicious sociopaths and/or devoted Luddites. Or, they can be self-deluding rationalizers who assuage their guilt regarding doing whatever they want by donating money too and vocally supporting the latest popular movement (Animal Rights, Saving Darfur & OWS are considered equally valuable in their tiny little hipster minds). Assuming these people can see the truth in the dog breed analogy is expecting Far Too Much from those who'll simply send more cash to HSUS and do the Three Monkeys routine when challenged.

usa  |  June, 12, 2013 at 03:54 PM

Rocks are all natural but we don't eat them.

Arkansas  |  June, 13, 2013 at 07:56 AM

Here's some 'natural' items you wouldn't want in your kids happy meal....snake venom, arsenic. By some reasoning, you could contend that everything on the planet is natural, otherwise it couldn't even be here. Unnatural would have to have been created by witches or some other ungodly otherworldly source. Kind of makes the word natural meaningless, doesn't it?

Kansas City  |  June, 25, 2013 at 02:24 PM

It's a shame that the author has intentionally blurred (or simply doesn't understand) the difference between crossbreeding and gene splicing. All modern dog breeds have been created through selective manipulation of the gene pool, keeping within the same species, Canis lupus. GMO organisms have had the DNA of one species of (plant, animal) inserted into a different one, something which could never occur in Nature - therefore "unnatural" is an appropriate description. An widely accepted example of this process is the production of human insulin, via insertion of the human insulin-producing gene into the genome of bacterium or yeast. Most would agree that this process has been of benefit to humans as it is more efficient than the old method of grinding up pig pancreas to get at the insulin molecule. A more frightening example would be the insertion of a laboratory-modified version of DNA into corn and soy, to render them able to be bathed in a certain herbicide. Is this actually going to prove in the long run to have been harmless to the biosphere? There is evidence that the modified crops are implicated in the recent increase in allergic disorders seen in both pet animals and people. Time will tell, but until that time comes, the makers of the GMO corn (who also happen to be the makers of the herbicide), will continue to rake in billions of dollars. The essay, while light-hearted and intended to amuse, does not address the very real problem of labeling foods "natural" when the term is open to interpretation by the end user or in the case of foods, the consumer. Nor does it address the desire of many, to simply have GMO foods labeled as such.

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