Home > Skepticism > Nature ≠ Good. Artificial ≠ bad.

Nature ≠ Good. Artificial ≠ bad.

Last week, when I came out of a bank, a young man came to me asking if I cared about the environment and whether I could spare a few minutes. I was probably a random choice, but the fact that I cycled to the bank could have also played a part. He told me he was from Greenpeace, and showed me some pictures from his folder. He started off with GM foods.

He started telling me that GM foods are harmful, that they should not be allowed, and that Greenpeace was actively campaigning against it. I wonder why he did not choose the more simple ideas like pollution, e-waste etc. But he continued with GM foods. I asked him what the problem with GM foods were. There were studies that showed GM foods were harmful to our health, he asserted. He also told me that sometimes the danger is not easy to assess since the effects take a long time to show up, but that in the meanwhile we would have consumed a lot of this harmful food.

I asked him why he thinks natural foods are good for us. He simply replied those are natural, as if that explained everything. So I showed him an apple, which a fruit vendor was selling right behind him, and tried to explain to him that this apple too could have had a mutation while its DNA was being inherited from its parent, and hence even that apple could be harmful. After all mutations almost always happen while inheriting genes.

At this, the guy next to him told me that even though there is a mutation it is its “own” genes and hence not harmful. He also pointed out that Bt Brinjal had a gene inserted into it that made it harmful to insects. “So what?” I asked him. He logically (at least that is what he thought) pointed out that if the gene harms insects, it will harm humans too. To which I pointed out that our body itself has lots of immune mechanisms that fight bacteria and viruses, and going by his logic our immune system should also be killing us.

His point about the mutation being in its “own” genes was also a bad argument, since all genes are just A, T, C and G. There is really nothing to say that mutations are ok as long as they are their own genes. “Own genes” does not have any meaning, but I did not argue about that there because now the first guy told me that he was not against GM foods, but only wanted them to be tested rigourously. I agreed to this, but asked him why natural food products need not be tested, since they too could contain harmful mutations and that if one is worried about GM foods because their genes have been modified, even “natural” mutations should give us sleepless nights. I also explained to him how artificial selection over the centuries (like breeding dogs) has changed the genetic make up of other animals, and that the only difference between GM foods and dog breeding is that instead of waiting for the mutations to occur randomly, we are inserting the mutations ourselves.

This time he told me that because of GM foods, we are losing out on diversity and that farmers will now become dependent on multinationals like Monsanto. I acknowledged that those are indeed problems that we need to be worried about, but in that case let us not scare people about the health effects of GM foods, but work on highlighting those points about economic impacts and farmers’ issues.

I suspect that the reason why he chose GM foods was that, campaigning in a city, that is what people would be worried about. He can talk about pollution, farmers’ rights etc, but who would be bothered about those issues in a city. People are worried only when they are about to be affected personally. The issue of GM foods is somewhat complicated. My intention of this post is not to give you the arguments for and against GM foods. Neither is it my idea to belittle those 2 young people, because their intentions were genuine. They were idealistic and wanted to bring about some change. I recognise, understand and truly appreciate that. I have been there.

The subject of this post is a more general one than just GM foods. And that is that the widespread idea that that anything natural is somehow better and safer than anything artificial. This perception is highly common, and I believe that it was the fact that GM foods are human made that lay at the heart of people’s opposition to it. Such a thought is also at the basis of why items like health foods, shampoos and soaps all are sold with the tag “Natural”. This tag is also used as an antonym to chemicals too.

At one point during my discussion, the two guys raised the topic of fertilisers too and told me that since they were chemical fertilisers, the food produced using them are harmful. I tried explaining to them that cow dung has chemicals too. The argument did not have any effect on them.

But my point is this. How can something be good just because it is natural? A python hug is natural. Will anybody argue it is good for our health? Cancer is natural (though it can be artificial too). So is a tsunami, an earthquake, a volcano eruption. The AIDS virus is natural. The common cold virus is natural. Naturally poisonous plants exist. Do you want them? Medicines are artificial. Will you stay away from them?

As for the word “chemicals”, when people say something is free of chemicals, they are blabbering. Water is a chemical, for heavens’ sake. I am not trying to say fertilisers are good and that they should be a part of our diet. That fertilisers could be harmful and it is good to be suspicious of them, is not something I doubt, and we have seen those suspicions vindicated bdefore. But let us not be fooled by the idea that they are harmful just because they are artificial. They are harmful because they are harmful. Organic foods can be harmful too. Here is an example. So whether something is good or bad for us should be decided on the tests conducted, not on wishful thinking, or fanciful ideas about Nature providing us all the things we will ever need, or Nature being a caring mother looking after all its children.

It is important to understand that Nature is essentially indifferent towards us. It (if the “it” means anything) is not bothered about us. The line between artificial and natural is not very useful when talking about the harm it causes. The dividing line itself is very blurred. Is cow’s milk natural considering that they are from animals that have such huge udders because of artificial selection? Artificial selection too works only because genes are changing. The only difference is that we dont manually change them, but wait for change to happen and seize upon changes that appear to be useful to us. In this case, bigger udders. And some of those genetic mutations would have played changed the the quality of milk too. But we don’t look at cow’s milk as artificial. Why so? Is wheat natural? After all, it too is the result of millenia of artificial selection and cross breeding by humans.

The next time somebody asks you for something natural because that will be healthy, ask them to try snake venom. And if they want chemical free food, their only option would be vacuum (that is if they don’t mind the taste of the Higg’s field). There are good and bad things that are natural. Similarly there are good and bad things that are artificial. Whether something is artificial or natural alone does not determine if it is good or bad for us. We need to realise that.

  1. maheshs
    February 4, 2012 at 23:47

    nice one, This article is a natural one. but mine are mostly artificial. do you get it?

  2. February 8, 2012 at 13:39

    If I were in the greenpeace-guy’s shoes, I would have positioned it something like…:

    The cowdung chemical and the python hug have co-evolved over millions of years, and hence, all organisms on earth (including human beings) have had the time to adjust and adapt and evolve.
    On the other hand, GM-stuff and other “man-made” concepts don’t have the wellbeing of earth’s organisms as their primary motive. Business, short-term goals, and other crass-er motives come to the fore. Heck – they don’t even KNOW it is safe for human beings yet.. Not time enough…

    Hence, while research is welcome and innovation is key, mainstreaming such stuff as business-ready is something to be cautious about…

    Just my opinion.

    • February 9, 2012 at 06:30

      You are saying that the difference between natural and artificial is more about how much time we have had to evolve to these things. But even with that line of argument cannot be used to explain why we do not suspect cow’s milk or the wheat we eat. Wheat came into existence only before some thousands of years ago. And it did not reach many places in our world till much later. Considering that, we did not have the time to evolve to any dangers that the cross bred and artificially selected wheat might pose. Also, cow’s milk is of more recent origin. Here too, we do not know if in artificial selection of cows, what kind of changes happened to the genes. And some of this could affect the milk that we consume too. So we should be at least as suspicious of wheat and milk as we should be of other GM foods. It is not as if humans (or any other organisms) evolve to handle every possible danger. There must be sufficient pressure of selection and that is not easy as can be seen from the fact that we still have not evolved to lose our craving for fatty foods, though we have had a regular supply of food (unlike the life of a hunter gatherer) since the time we started agriculture. We have not even evolved fully to handle the problems of bipedalism (which is why backaches are common and bipedalism is also one of the factors why hernia is common among men) which is far earlier than the beginning of agriculture.

      Apart from that, what about the odd chance that one of the brinjals you eat has some dangerous mutation which could affect you? Imagine your are a farmer, who noticed that a certain brinjal is resistant to pests (which is the result of some natural mutation). You will naturally use that line of brinjals as it is economically safer for you since you wont lose your produce to pests. Now this mutation that led to some specific pest resistance could cause some side effect for consumers. Thus in just a few generations (which could just mean a few years, or even say a couple of decades, during which time not even one generation of humans would have passed and so no question of humans evolving to that), the farmer could have developed some pest resistant line of brinjals whose consequences to consumers are unknown. This can happen because mutations happen on every reproduction. My question is, why should we treat these artificially selected brinjals differently from GM modified brinjals?

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