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Agriculture … naturally!

Normand St-Pierre Published on 21 September 2011

Editor’s note: The author submitted this opinion piece after original publication in Farm and Dairy and subsequent compliments for “sticking out” his neck.

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?

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Maybe it’s because there is nothing natural about a Ford pickup or an iPhone; yet they are amongst 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 is not kind and benign. The competition amongst 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 even reproduce.

In nature, there is no advantage for a deer to be tastier than its cousin, for a head of lettuce to be crisper 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).

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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. 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.

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, whether it be conventional, artisanal, organic, holistic, or whatever “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).

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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 or her that Steve Jobs could not have invented the iPod if every day he had to worry 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 thing as a natural alfalfa grown using any agricultural practice. No alfalfa is more natural than any others.

The problem is that we have been so conditioned into thinking that “natural” is good that it is hard for our poor little brains 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. PD

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Normand St-Pierre
Professor and Extension Dairy Specialist

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