When it comes to food and farming, Mother Nature does not always know best, says Ottoline Leyser.

Ottoline Leyser
© The University of York

No one says to their children, “Go into the woods and eat anything you can find. It is all natural, so it must be good for you.” But for some reason when we walk into the supermarket ‘natural’ is a key selling point for all kinds of foods.

My favourite example is a sweetcorn you can buy that claims to be ‘naturally sweet’. This is an absurd idea. Naturally, seeds are tough and indigestible – they are not sweet. Seeds are a plant’s babies, and the last thing most plants want you to do is eat their babies.

Naturally, plants don’t want to be eaten at all. We know this. We know natural plants are potentially extremely dangerous and not at all generous in providing us with food, otherwise we would let our children eat whatever they find in the woods.

There are some interesting exceptions. Plants bribe animals to help them carry their pollen to another plant, or their seed to a new location, but for the most part, natural plants are bristling with defences. It is precisely this reason that 10,000 years ago people invented agriculture.

The crops that feed the world today are not remotely natural. It’s taken farmers 10,000 years of selection to breed out the defences and other features inconvenient for farming or consumption that natural selection spent millions of years putting in.

So if we know that plants were not put on the planet for our personal benefit, and indeed natural plants are dangerous, why are we beguiled by the supermarket sales pitch that natural food is good for us?

I think it comes from the very clear evidence that we are not living sustainably and we are not eating healthily. High input farming and highly processed foods are damaging to the environment and to us.

The easy-to-sell solution to these problems is that since the things we are doing now are bad and the things we used to do were good, everything would be better if we ‘went back to nature’.

But since nature, as everyone really knows, is red in tooth and claw, this argument makes no sense at all.

We should not do less things; we should do different things. We need science to help us work out how to do farming more sustainably and eat more healthily. We need to work hard at this, and it is going to be difficult and involve changes to our lifestyles that we will not like.

Buying products labelled ‘natural’ in a supermarket is not going to help. Trying to sell things on this basis merely exploits peoples’ desire to do the right thing when we need that energy and idealism to bring about genuinely positive changes.   

About Ottoline Leyser

Professor Ottoline Leyser CBE FRS from the University of York received the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award in 2007 for her work on plant hormones and how they control plant development, which led to the publication of the book Mothers in Science: 64 ways to have it all (PDF) to show how women can manage both science and family.

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