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Published on July 27th, 2009 | by Steve Savage

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The Nature of “Natural”

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If you go to the Organic Consumers Association website you will see that they are upset about the way that stores like Whole Foods market products as “natural.”  They believe (and they are probably right) that consumers will confuse this with “Organic.”  In fact there are no real rules about what can be called “natural” and savvy marketers have realized that almost everyone likes the concept of “natural” and they have tapped into that for selling power.

The problem for the Organic community is that their own, highly regulated farming system is also built on the concept of “natural.”  I have a good friend who was on the board of CCOF (California’s organic certification leader) back in the days when the definition of “USDA Organic” was being hammered out (1990-2002).  He explained that one reason it took so long was that there was a philosophical struggle between the Organic stalwarts who wanted it to be driven by what was “natural” and by the USDA that wanted to bring some science into what was safest and best for the environment.  The “natural” voices prevailed.

Is “Natural” always nice?

I’ve had some reason lately to be reminded that “natural” isn’t always so nice.  I stepped on a stingray and got a severe, first-had lesson about the potency of a toxin that is perfectly “natural”.    If you think about it, nature is full of nasty chemicals that are “natural.”  Aflatoxin that can be in grains and nuts is highly toxic and also one of the most potent carcinogens known. Ricin is another super-potent toxin.  Fumonisin causes birth defects.  Brevetoxin produced in “Red Tides” causes massive fish kills.  Even natural chemicals in our beverages and foods like alcohol, caffeine or capsaicin are more toxic than most modern pesticides and we consume them in far higher quantities.

What actually makes something safe or good for the environment is not whether it is “natural,” it depends on the properties of the specific chemical.  So marketing something with the implication that it is good just because it is “natural” can be a form of “green-washing”  whether its being done by Whole Foods or by an Organic food company.



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About the Author

Born in Denver, now living near San Diego. Agricultural scientist for 30+ years with a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology. Have worked for Colorado State University, DuPont and Mycogen and for the last 13 years consulting for all sorts or companies, universities and grower groups. Experience in biological control, natural products, synthetic chemicals, genetics, GMOs and agronomic practices. Have given multiple invited talks on the interaction between agriculture and climate change (both ways)



10 Responses to The Nature of “Natural”

  1. Even the organic certification is not perfect, it is not too hard to get certified without being compliant. Many organic testing facilities do no follow up, and never check to make sure that the test specimen they get is a representative of the agricultural practices at that particular farm. Greenwashing is going to be a huge issue in the years to come.

    -Tyler

  2. Steve Savage says:

    Tyler,
    That is a good point. There was a soluble “organic” fertilizer that could be spoon-fed through the drip lines (a very good practice) being sold for years that was actually spiked with synthetic nitrogen. Not that that really matters, but they had to give all the growers a special dispensation or they would have had to go through another three-year transition period

  3. Robin says:

    I think the fact that companies use the unregulated term “natural” to confuse consumers is horrible. People need to become more educated about what is safe to eat and not to eat. I personally changed all my eating habits after I read Kevin Trudeau’s Natural Cures They Don’t Want You to Know About. It’s an important book that I think everyone should read.

  4. russ says:

    Greenwashing is abhorrent to some while I don’t believe the great majority would list it very high on a scale of 1 to 10 – if they listed it in the top 10 problems at all.

    I personally think that improved methods the USDA wanted are far more important than a small percentage of the overall food supply provided by the organic types.

  5. Great information. For more on the misuse of the word natural and what’s being done about it, read this: http://bit.ly/p3haD

  6. Pingback: Wheat Breeders: A Quiet Pillar of Sustainable Agriculture : Sustainablog

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  8. Pingback: Food Supply Worries of an Agricultural Scientist Part 4: Aflatoxin : Sustainablog

  9. Pingback: USDA Organic: 20 years Later : Eat. Drink. Better.

  10. Pingback: USDA Organic: 20 years Later « Green Commentaries Around the Web

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