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This post was written by my friend, Dr. Rebecca Epstein-Levi, a professor and writer working at the intersection of religion and bioethics. If there's one thing the ethical blogging niche needs, it's more experts, so I'm thankful that Rebecca agreed to write this piece for StyleWise.

Nature has no preference for good things over bad things; its mills turn out any kind of grist indifferently.
-John Dewey, Experience and Nature

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.
-Kranzberg’s first law of technology

Busting the "Natural is Better" Myth

It’s nearly a truism these days that in social spaces centered around sustainability or health, it’s impossible to spit without hitting some version of the belief that “natural is better.” Labels like “natural,” “organic,” “chemical-free,”(1) and “non-GMO” indicate a product is claiming a specific kind of moral rectitude.

This is a claim that also transcends conventional left-right political categories. Organic and natural foods, anti-GMO activism, anti-vaccine claims, and devotion to natural childbirth (to name a handful of specific manifestations of the claim) have found ready acceptance among survivalists, Christian homesteaders, and adherents to Quiverfull and Christian patriarchy movements just as they have among hippies, back-to-the-landers, and “granola parents.

On strictly factual grounds, the belief in the fundamental superiority of “natural” products on health and sustainability grounds is misleading, even harmful. Examples abound of “natural” entities, substances and processes whose effects on the human body range from unpleasant to deadly—try arsenic, cholera, and the venom of the cone snail for just a few.

Similarly, just because something has been been created or modified by humans does not mean it is harmful. There is, for example, no good evidence that food from genetically modified crops is harmful to human health (2). As for sustainability, evidence is mixed in such a way to cast significant doubt on the “naturalness” of a farming or manufacturing process as the most important variable (3). Far more important are the ways a given technology is used, and on what. (Consider, for example, Leah’s recent post about how lab-grown diamonds are far more sustainable than mined diamonds—a clear example of how a process of synthetic manufacture has far fewer human and environmental costs than a “natural” one). 
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A Case Study: Genetically Engineered Crops

Take the case of genetically engineered (GE) crops. One might claim—and, incidentally, I would agree—that growing field upon field of trademarked Roundup-Ready maize is problematic on moral, ecological, and social justice grounds. But the reasons that practice is problematic have little to do with the fact that the maize is genetically engineered as such, and much to do with the corporate control, monocropping, and exploitative labor practices that such a scenario engenders.

On moral and cultural grounds, however, it is worth asking just what labels like “natural” and so on are standing in for. Again, let’s take the case of GE crops. When we recoil at the idea of a crop having been specifically engineered for a particular trait, and at that engineering having been done in a lab rather than over generations of selective breeding, what baneful associations do we have with that process? And, conversely, what salutary associations do we have with the breeding of crops in a more conventional manner?

I suspect that we have two sets of associations with genetic engineering. First, I suspect that genetic engineering makes it impossible to deny the manipulated and processed nature of nearly everything we put in or on our bodies. Few to none of our major food crops much resemble their nearest wild ancestors—heirloom variety maize and maize with bacterial genes spliced in have far more in common with each other, both genetically and morphologically, than either does with maize’s nearest wild ancestor, a nearly inedible grass called teosinte. But engineered crops let their history of manipulation all hang out, whereas our wholesome narrative about conventionally bred varieties allows us to obscure their history of extensive modification behind a veneer of simple God-givenness.

Second, the particular sort of manipulation that we call “synthetic”—here, laboratory transgenesis and gene editing—calls to mind the sort of ivory tower decision-making that has excluded actual farm workers and consumers from the conversation. The soil is simple and democratic, according to this narrative, while the lab is corporate and hierarchal. And certainly the conduct of biotech giants like Monsanto does nothing to contradict that notion.

Moral Agency

In short, the first association reminds us of the extent to which our world is shaped by our moral choices; the second reminds us of the extent to which systems restrict our moral agency. Thus, they’re related—and thinking about them together can help us navigate both. For if something is processed or manipulated in some way, it means someone made a choice—a moral choice—about its production. And to realize that everything we consume was produced and chosen at some level, rather than being merely given—this is discomfiting

But it also means that we can choose to produce and manipulate in ways that support sustainability and social justice.

We can support policy that favors open-source gene editing, manipulating a broad variety of crops for things like drought and pest resistance or biofortification, consulting with local users on which modifications make sense for their needs, and sharing the technologies with those users. And we can support responsible, accessible science journalism and education that enables consumers to make wise choices and to participate in conversations about research priorities.

Distinguishing between superficial appeals to nature and genuine concerns about sustainability, justice, or health, then, requires cultivating particular sets of interpretive skills. One set involves the ability to read health and environmental claims critically. Equally important, however, is the ability to read moral claims critically. Ask yourself—when a product advertises that it is “natural,” “chemical-free,” or similar, what more specific moral claims is that label standing in for?

Own the extent to which your moral choices condition your world. Realize the limits of your moral influence. And then, do your best to choose wisely.


About the Author:
Dr. Rebecca J. Epstein-Levi is the Friedman Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is a practical ethicist who examines questions of sexual, biomedical, and environmental ethics through a Jewish lens. In her copious free time, she enjoys horseback riding, cooking overly complicated meals, and sharpening her ever-growing collection of kitchen knives. She lives with her wife, Sarah, and her cat, Faintly Macabre. 

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Footnotes:
(1) This one, incidentally, is physically impossible unless you can eat or wear pure energy, in which case, more power to you.
(2) See Committee on Identifying and Assessing Unintended Effects of Genetically Engineered Foods on Human Health, Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects. National Academies Press 2004, accessed July 16, 2015; American Medical Association, “Labeling of Bioengineered Foods,”
(3) In general, consensus seems to be that GE varieties can give greater yields and reduce pesticide usage. Herbicide usage tends to increase with the adoption of herbicide-tolerant GE crops; however, such crops also allow the more widespread use of relatively less toxic herbicides. See Klümper and Quaim 2014, “A Meta-Analysis of the Impacts of Genetically Modified Crops.” PLOSOne 9(2014):11, accessed July 16, 2015, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0111629; Fernandez-Cornejo, et al, 2014 “Genetically Engineered Crops in the United States” USDA Economic Research Service Report 162, accessed July 16, 2015