"America is the scariest country," a Japanese politician told me way back when. I was interviewing him at a tense time in the U.S.-Japan economic relationship, so when I asked him to explain, I expected him to cite high-handed American trade negotiators. If not that, I figured he'd bring up the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II.
Instead, "Prohibition" was his surprising reply. Drinking alcohol, the politician went on, is "natural." A country that thinks it can outlaw what's natural is scary.
As I reflect back on that exchange two decades later, the word that sticks out is no longer "scariest." It's "natural." Though I didn't recognize it at the time, I now realize that the politician had inadvertently raised the question that plagues the world of food and agriculture today: What does "natural" mean?
Is getting drunk natural? Archaeologists and anthropologists think prehistoric man both drank alcohol and did drugs. What criteria should food have to meet to be labeled natural? The courts and the regulators are still mulling that.
Are there natural laws that take precedence over laws enacted by men? Our founding fathers seemed to think so. In the Declaration of Independence, they said "the laws of nature and nature's God" entitled the American colonists to "a separate and equal station." They didn't say how they had determined what those natural laws were.
Western philosophers have contemplated the nature of "nature" and "natural" since at least the ancient Greeks. But it was with the emergence of romanticism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that "natural" was increasingly used the way we use it when discussing food and agriculture.
The Romantics -- philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau, poets like William Wordsworth, painters like John Constable -- preferred the works of nature to the works of man. Today's natural-food proponents also prefer the works of nature to the works of man. But they don't necessarily exalt emotion over reason, as the romantics did.
To the contrary, many of them believe reason -- or, in today's terminology, science -- backs their view that in growing and producing food, nature's way is best. Agree with them or not, they do their own calculations of costs and benefits using facts derived from studies.
Yet like romanticism, which was in many ways a reaction to the Industrial Revolution, the natural food movement can be seen as a reaction to the increasing sophistication of technology. To many, processed food is, by definition, bad. That what's processed might be safer, tastier or less expensive is irrelevant.
And like the romantics, the natural food fans long for an idealized simpler, better past -- a past when, they assume, nature's way prevailed.
But did it? Did great-great grandfather plant seeds that were the product of nature, or of man's tampering with nature? Did he let things grow the way they grew in the wild, or did he grow them using tools and techniques that manipulated nature? His tools and techniques were simpler than ours, but were they "natural?"
The questions multiply: Is man himself part of nature? Isn't trying to improve the world around him part of man's nature? Is it possible that in our obsession with whether food is natural, we're asking the wrong question? Shouldn't we be more worried about whether the product is good than how it was made?
In Japan, where I began these musings, nature is revered. But the Japanese often revere nature by tampering with it to make it look more natural. That may sound self-contradictory, but anyone familiar with Japanese arts like ikebana (flower arranging) or bonsai (the growing of tiny trees in containers) knows what I mean.
Maybe the Japanese politician was right. Maybe a country that tries to outlaw what's natural is scary. But so little of what we consume in the way of food is truly natural that maybe instead of trying to define what constitutes natural food, our scary government should just ban the use of the word on food labels altogether. "Made with great-grandfather's technology" would in most cases be more accurate.
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