“Natural” Foods

Over at the Rebel Sell blog, Andrew has a nice commentary on a NY Times story about the battle over standards for organic foods. Wal-Mart is (again, still) being accused of selling “organic” food (in this case, milk) that doesn’t meet the standards for real organic food.

Andrew’s response to one critic’s concern that feeding cows grain — even organic grain — isn’t natural? This:

Natural behaviour? Cows aren’t natural entities. Like dogs, they’re completely artificial. They’re basically living meat sculptures, shaped by humans, for human purposes, over thousands of years. Besides, who cares whether what they eat is part of their natural behaviour? You’re going to drink their milk. Once you’ve decided that you’re willing to swallow whatever comes out of a cow’s udder, you’ve pretty much abandoned any high ground on the “natural behaviour” front.

Seems to me the obvious pop-cultural touchstone for the un-naturalness of cow’s milk is comedian Tom Green’s famous stunt, drinking directly from a cow’s teat. (I’m sure Green wasn’t the first to do this for its shock value, but he did kinda perfect it.) Green’s shtick is funny precisely because it plays on our own visceral reaction to the un-natural act of drinking cow milk.

So, just what is the debate over? At heart, it’s a debate over “the principles” of organic agriculture. Which principles are those? Depends who you ask. Given that, as far as I know, there’s currently no evidence that organic anything is any safer for human consumption than non-organic equivalents, debates over standards pretty much have to come down to debates like the one Andrew justly mocks. Debates over which style of organic farming is “more natural” have more in common with disputes over interpretation of religious texts and debates over whether a particular transitional painting is best seen as part of an earlier, or instead a later, artistic era, than they do with debates over (say) standards for garment-industry labour. (I don’t see any reference in the NYT story to animal welfare. Is that one of the “organic” principles? That’s quite a stretch, I would think. I care about animal welfare, but isn’t that a separate issue?)

What it comes down to, I suspect, is that Wal-Mart has figured out which aspects of “traditional” organic agriculture consumers (or at least, enough consumers), actually care about, which is absence of pesticides and growth hormones. Wal-Mart will capitalize on the fact that their average shopper does not care — probably never will care — about whether the diet the milk-cow ate or the environment in which it was raised was “natural.” Even if there’s no concrete evidence that organic foods are healthier, that’s what most consumers want from it, not good karma.

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