Unnatural Food (guest post)

Time magazine reports on a lab at the University of Missouri that has created a soy-and-wheat meat analogue with the texture of chicken:

First, you take a dry mixture of soy-protein powder and wheat flour, add water and dump it into an industrial extruder, which is essentially a gigantic food processor. (You have to climb a ladder to get to the hole at the top.) At first, the mixture looks like cake batter. But as it's run through the gears of the extruder and heated to precisely 346°F (175°C), the batter firms up and forms complex striations. It took Hsieh and Huff many years to get the temperature right, and it also took years to discover how to cool the soy cake very quickly, before it could melt. ... All this processing raises a question: Will vegans and other gastronomic purists buy a product that is vegetarian but highly processed?

Not only “gastronomic purists” but many others will worry that it’s highly processed, that “It’s not natural.” I find this objection odd. Is there anything we eat that is “natural”? Fruit, vegetables, meat, drink – it’s all the product of centuries or millennia of artificial processing, commonly involving genetic engineering in the form of selective breeding of plants and animals – on top of which today are the vast industrial processes of chemical, mineral, and fuel extraction, then transportation, ploughing, fertilizing, planting, irrigating, harvesting, housing, feeding, waste disposal, more transportation, then often cooking with gas or electricity. Does “natural” retain any discernible meaning in this context? In what sense is a meat analogue any less natural than real meat? I can’t see it. And what about vat meatreal meat grown in labs (and eventually, no doubt, in factories in industrial quantities)? Is that any less natural than real meat hacked from the bodies of artificially modified and industrially produced animals? Again, I can’t see it.

We are natural beings and yet, as Marx described in Capital, our “metabolism” with the external world involves a ceaseless process of dialectical modification.

Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process in which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement his acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.

For human beings there is no tidy distinction between the natural and the artificial. This doesn’t mean that anything goes, that whatever we do is okay because, after all, it’s all natural (and simultaneously it’s all artificial). There are forms of dialectical exchange with non-human nature that are healthy and forms that are not – forms that promote the flourishing of ecosystems and individuals and forms that do not, forms that we can judge to be morally appropriate and forms that we can judge to be morally inappropriate. But whether getting B12 from a pill is “natural” – if that’s an issue at all, it’s small potatoes.


amos said...

Granted that the tomatoes which I eat aren't particularly natural, in the sense that the variety of tomatoes sold in my vegetable store don't grow spontaneously in nature. However, what scares off some people about new non-natural products is that they have not stood the test of time regarding their effects on health. One reads the label of some new miracle food in a supermarket (if the print is large enough to read without a magnifying glass), and one wonders whether the ingredients could cause cancer or some other disease through long-term use. Lots of people don't trust the food processing industry to consider the consumers' health.
So, part of the trend towards "natural" foods is not a fetishism of naturalness, but wariness about what goes into food and how food is processed.
By the way, how nice to see that someone considers Marx to be a source of wisdom!

Ed said...

Amos is right about the test of time. We have centuries of experience of eating plants and animals and the traditional products made from them. It's true we have selectively bred these organisms to be different from their wild ancestors: bigger, easier to handle etc. But the traditional foods obtained from them are still functionally the same kind of product we have been eating for centuries.

The same is not true of the products of industrial processing, factory farms, or genetic engineering.. Industrial food production is constantly springing unpleasant surprises on us. Omega 3 depletion in feedlot beef. Trans fats in margarine. Insulin resistance from processed carbs.

Faust said...

I think the comments above point in the right direction, i.e. that "natural" is celebrated because of a mistrust in human manipulation of the world. The-world-without-humans has a balance that has emerged over time that has produced a great deal of stability. It is easy to overlook the fact that this stability is based on intense competition between various forms of life that are trying to eat each other, take over each others resources and so forth.

But we know that this stability has been formed over a long period of time, and that our inventions interact with existing systems in ways that are unpredictable and may well do us harm.

But this little picture really does exhaust the concept of "natural." It seems to mean little more than "processes that have developed independently of human efforts and are therefore likely to be more beneficial (or reliable) than untested human innovations."

Accepting the standard evolutionary story, "nature's wisdom" is just the result of a great many problems having been sorted out over a very long time through an extremely sloppy trial and error process. Humans have evolved the capacity to internalize this trial and error process, and are able to accelerate it to heretofore unheard of speeds. But of course this is a trial and ERROR process. We make many many mistakes. And we have obtained such powers that some of those mistakes may well spell enormous death and destruction for the global ecosystem. But our errors are not UNNATURAL errors. Strictly speaking they are precisely the same errors that occurred during the process that produced us, namely the process of evolution itself.

The only entity in the neighborhood capable of thinking that we are doing a bunch of un-natural or non-natural things is us. That we would make this distinction is of course...only natural.