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Going 'natural' is doing the world no favours: A response to Clare Wilson - New Scientist

thoughts & comment — 28 May 2016

New ScientistIN THIS WEEK'S NEW SCIENTIST magazine there is an article by reporter Clare Wilson entitled Going 'natural' is doing the world no favours. Having read it, I think a more accurate title would be Clare Wilson is doing the world no favours as her article has so many misconceptions. She has clearly not thought the topic through and is just regurgitating dated scientific and corporate doctrine.

Wilson is certainly right that the Western world is currently absorbed in a cultural obsession with all things "natural", but because New Scientist is a mouthpiece of the science and pharmaceutical industries, she has been paid to present this obsession as a foolish alternative fad and fallacy rather than as a rational response to the increasing dangers of unnatural lifestyles, foods and medicines. By writing as poorly as she has, Wilson ends up scoring an own goal.

It is probably best to start with the very last sentence that Wilson writes: "Those of us who live long and comfortable lives do so precisely because we have conquered nature." What arrogance and nonsense. We can't "conquer" nature because we are so much a part of nature. Instead we have learnt to cooperate with nature, and that is something that Wilson does not seem to understand. The better we cooperate with nature, the healthier and easier our lives can be. But try to conquer it… and we soon find ourselves humbled by the devastation that can result.

So, for example, eating organic food is a good idea because human beings have evolved over millions of years on organic "natural" diets. Introducing GM foods and adding chemicals that we have not evolved on are likely to be problematic.

Another example might be pharmaceutical drugs that are an analogue of a substance found in nature. Analogues are often used in order to secure intellectual property rights and thus turn a far higher profit. But as these analogues were not present during our evolution, perhaps it is a more rational approach to avoid them and take the natural version?

So insisting on a diet without chemicals and without genetic modification is not a "fallacy". It is a rational position to take. Why allow industry to dictate the composition of our food and medicines when the bottom line of industry is profit, not long-term public health. I say long-term here as the safety research on chemicalised and genetically modified food is invariably short-term, so we do not actually know the long-term effects of these foods on society. What we do know is that incidents of chronic disease are rapidly rising, but without the research into the long-term effects of artificial foods, we don't actually know how great a factor they are in this equation.

Is this a "naturalistic fallacy" that we are indulging in "from a position of prosperity", or is this just common sense to insist on a natural "untainted" diet in a corporatised society where it is primarily profit directing the composition of our food and medicines? Just because we want untainted food, does that mean we reject refrigerators too? This is all just nonsense.

What Wilson is trying to do is trivialise the issue by defining our desire to be "natural" as a desire "to emulate our Stone-Age ancestors". She sets up a straw man by associating a desire to be "natural" with a rejection of modern scientific understanding and technological advances, and then spends her article gleefully dismissing "natural" as anti-progress. In this way, a rejection of chemicalised and genetically modified foods is equated to a rejection of modern refrigerators and anti-scientific sentiment.

But a desire to be natural does not necessarily equate to a rejection of modern technology and progress. Orthodox medicine has done a wonderful job dealing with acute medical conditions, which is why it is in such demand in developing countries where the main medical challenges faced are acute. This ability to deal with acute disease is what has increased lifespan. In more affluent societies, where infectious diseases have been largely eradicated (mostly due to the introduction of proper sanitation), chronic diseases are our primary threat, diseases which modern medicine (developed on the acute disease model) is not efficient at dealing with. In fact, these diseases are rapidly on the rise, most likely due to the long-term effects of chemicals in our environments and in the food we eat. To point the finger at chemicals is not "anti-progress" or a "fallacy", but pretty much undeniable scientifically. Of course there are likely to be other factors involved, but the presence of toxic chemicals has to be one of the primary ones.

So the promotion of "natural" forms of medicine do make sense for chronic disease states that do not respond well to conventional medicine. Natural just means reducing the load of undesirable chemicals in our bodies, chemicals that are bodies have not been exposed to long enough to be able to effectively deal with them without causing internal damage in one way or another. It really is as simple and as rational as that.

And thank you for your assurance that "GM food presents no threat to health" as many of the independent studies indicate that it very likely presents a serious threat to health. Perhaps you have ties to the GM industry or feel you need to defend your magazine advertisers, but making spurious statements does not do the world any favours. And justifying GM crops on the basis of the fact "we have been genetically modifying our crops for millennial" shows no understanding of what modern genetic modification involves. I suggest you read Altered Genes, Twisted Truth by Drucker, but somehow I know you won't as you seem to have a closed-minded pro-GM agenda.

As for the Green movement falling "into the trap of thinking that Mother Nature is always best," well it didn't do so bad keeping life thriving for billions of years. Nature does generally know best. (Sneaking in the word "always" as a means to dismiss a generally true statement is artful and disceiving.)

And regarding vaccines: those that are anti-vaccine are motivated more by avoiding the adverse effects of vaccines, many of which contain questionable substances, than by any ideology of natural inoculation being superior. Whether the fears are grounded in reality or not is an entirely different matter, one that probably requires more research, but to not even mention the fear of toxicity and harm as a prime motivating factor for opposition to vaccines shows how contrived this article actually is.

Wilson needs to rethink what "natural" actually means. It does not mean giving up modern society and returning to the Stone-Age. But it does mean minimising the stressors on the body so that we give it foods that it is most able to metabolise, and medicines that are most effective with its complex chemical pathways. These tend to be the ones that do not introduce too much "novelty" to a metabolism that has evolved over millions of years on specific sets of nutrients that many label as "natural".

So if eating organic food reduces that chemical novelty… great! And if avoiding unnecessary pharmaceutical drugs also reduces that chemical novelty… even better! And if those processes of avoiding novelty are labelled "natural", then let us live as "natural" a life as possible. But equating a desire for a "natural" lifestyle as an anti-progressive hankering after a Stone-Age lifestyle is either disingenuous or evidence of stupidity.

I suggest, Clare Wilson, that given the choice, you opt not just for modern medicine, a warm house and a full refrigerator, but effective medicine, a warm house and a refrigerator full of unadulterated food. Wouldn't that be better?