In the environmental and natural health movements, people value naturalness. However, from a rational-philosophical perspective, this notion of naturalness doesn’t make much sense: it is arbitrary and not well-defined. Second, from an ethical perspective, preferring naturalness is often harmful: it decreases the well-being of other people. In this sense, a preference for naturalness is a perfect example of a moral illusion: a persistent erroneous moral judgment that distracts us away from a rational ethic.
Why naturalness is irrational
Naturalness is a very vague concept. What does it really mean to say that a process or product is natural?
- Does it mean that it occurs without human influence? That is arbitrary, because why would human influence make something unnatural and e.g. insect influence or mammal influence not? Mammals are part of the natural world, humans are a subgroup of mammals, so humans are also part of the natural world. Besides, what does “mammal influence” actually mean? If it has no meaning, then why should “human influence” have any meaning?
- Does it mean that it is safe? No, there is absolutely no correlation between naturalness and safeness. Some processes and products that are considered natural (erupting volcanoes, parasitism, toxic mushrooms) are more dangerous than processes and products that are considered unnatural or synthetic (inflating bicycle tires, using medicines, wearing protective gear).
- Does it mean that it is not invented? No, organic farming and natural health practices are invented, but considered natural.
- Does it mean that it has high biodiversity? No, with genetic manipulation we could highly increase biodiversity and create a large number of new species, but that is considered unnatural.
- Does it mean that it is ‘old’ or does it refer to a certain state of nature in the past? That is arbitrary, because at what time was nature most natural? Is a modern-day ecosystem that looks like an ecosystem 100 years ago less natural than a modern-day ecosystem that looks like an ecosystem 100.000 years ago? Is a health practice that was developed 20 years ago less natural than a centuries old health practice?
If you reflect on this notion of naturalness, you find it impossible to make it clear, well-defined and non-arbitrary. But the most worrying is that it is often harmful.
Why naturalness is harmful
Here are more than 10 examples of harm as a result of a belief in naturalness.
- An anti GMO attitude. Genetically modified organisms are considered as unnatural. However, there is a scientific consensus that GMOs are generally safe (not riskier than so called natural plant breeds used in e.g. organic farming). And GMOs can offer many benefits: less pesticide use, higher incomes for poor farmers and higher nutrient values. An example is the resistance against golden rise, a GMO rice that produces pro-vitamin A and could save 30.000 lives a year. Another example is the resistance against Bt-eggplant, a GMO eggplant that produces an insecticide that is also used in organic farming and hence no longer requires the application of insecticides by farmers, resulting in higher yields, higher biodiversity levels on the farms and higher incomes of the poor farmers in South-East Asia.
- An anti vaccine attitude. A lot of people are worried about vaccinations, thinking vaccines cause diseases such as autism. Vaccination is considered as an unnatural health practice. However, the scientific consensus and evidence is very strong: vaccines are highly effective, save millions of lives each year and the risks are very very small. If parents refuse to vaccinate their children, their own children and other children with compromised immune systems are at increased risk, herd immunity gets lost, which could result in many deaths.
- An anti E-numbers and chemical additives attitude. In Europe, some substances that are permitted to be used as food additives (because they have evidence of safety), have E-numbers. However, many of those E-numbers are produced synthetically and hence are considered unnatural. A worrying example is the use of methyl cellulose in some vegan food products. Methyl cellulose has E-number E461 and is used as an egg-replacer. It is perfectly safe, not toxic and not allergenic, but a producer of vegetarian products decided to replace methyl cellulose with egg-proteins, because eggs are considered more natural. As a result, those vegetarian products are harmful to chickens. As a comparison, the production of 1 kg of eggs involves more than 10 times more hours of animal suffering and killings of animals than the production of 1 kg of red meat. Another example is the avoidance of preservatives (E-numbers E200-E299): chemicals that prevent undesirable chemical changes and decomposition by microbial growth. This results in increased food waste. As there are sustainability challenges with feeding the world, food waste can be considered as being harmful.
- An anti vitamin supplements attitude. The consumption of animal products harms animals and future generations (due to climate change). Vegans avoid this harm, but a healthy vegan diet requires a vitamin B12 supplementation (either by using chewing tablets or eating products enriched with B12). Some people consider this as unnatural and therefore keep on eating animal products, harming animals. Ironically, they buy products from modern day livestock farming, which is far from natural because those animals get a lot of vitamin supplements and antibiotics. The amount of B12 that goes to livestock is sufficient for almost 40 billion vegans.
- An anti supplementation attitude in organic products. Some restrictive organic food regulations make organic foods less healthy. In particular enrichment with vitamins is not allowed in e.g. organic soy milk. Non-organic soy milk enriched with calcium and vitamins B12 and D can be healthier than non-enriched organic soy milk as well as cow milk. Hence, promoting organic soy milk can be harmful.
- An anti antibiotic attitude in organic livestock farming. The over use of antibiotics in livestock farming poses a serious threat to human health. Organic farmers try to avoid antibiotics, but when their animals get microbial diseases, they often rather use homeopathic means (or reiki) that have no demonstrable health benefit for the animals and are definitely less effective than antibiotics. Avoiding antibiotics in this case causes unnecessary animal suffering because the animals are not cured effectively.
- An anti synthetic pesticides attitude. Organic agriculture avoids synthetic pesticides but uses natural, organic pesticides instead. However, some of those organic pesticides are more dangerous (toxic) than some synthetic pesticides used in conventional farming. For example copper sulphate, sometimes used in organic farming, is very persistent and more than 10 times more toxic than alternative synthetic fungicides (measured in LD50 doses). Other organic pesticides are particularly harmful to non-target invertebrates such as bees (e.g. pyrethrine, azadirachtin, rotenone, eucalyptus oil, neem oil). According to one study for soybeans, organic pesticides were less effective in controlling aphids, were as toxic or more toxic for non-target invertebrates and had higher Environmental Impact Quotients than synthetic pesticides. Two other studies show a higher pesticide hazard rate for organic apples compared to non-organic, measured as the Environmental Impact Quotient per kilogram of product (see Being rational about organic food).
- An anti synthetic fertilizer attitude. Synthetic fertilizers are considered unnatural, so therefore a lot of animal manure is used in organic farming. However, due to the application of animal manure (that is not treated with non-organic radiation or antibiotic means to kill the bacteria), organic crops can have a higher risk of contamination with dangerous E.coli bacteria. Furthermore, the animal manure can be more harmful to aquatic life than synthetic fertilizer: per kilogram of product, organic products have higher eutrophication levels than conventional products, resulting in the suffocation of more fish.
- An anti synthetic fibers attitude. Looking at greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, pollution (human toxicity, aquatic toxicity) and many other indicators, the production of synthetic fibers is in many ways much better for the environment and human health than natural fibers such as cotton or animal fibers such as leather and wool. Cotton has human toxicity and ecotoxicity levels more than twice as high as synthetic fibers such as PE. Animal leather has a carbon footprint twice as high and a water footprint 100 times as high as synthetic leather from polyurethane. Shoes from cow leather have a three times higher carbon footprint than shoes from synthetic rubber. Synthetic wool (fleece) from recycled materials has a much lower footprint than wool from sheep: no land use, lower water ecotoxicity and 100 times lower greenhouse gas emissions. Using animal products instead of synthetic fibers harms animals: the sheep and cows for their wool and skin, and aquatic animals due to increased water pollution (water ecotoxicity).
- An anti plastic attitude. Plastic bags have a much lower carbon footprint than paper, cotton and compostable starch bags. A paper bag should be reused at least three times and a cotton bag at least 170 times before they become better for the environment than a disposable plastic bag. If we take into account toxicity, water use and land use, a cotton bag should be reused 500 times and a paper bag 30 times before they become better than a single use plastic bag. Reusable plastic bags are of course better still.
- An anti clean meat attitude. Clean meat is meat produced without the animal. It is also called lab meat or cultured meat because it is made in a lab using stem cell cultures. It will be available in the supermarkets in a few years. Some meat eaters are reluctant to eat meat produced in a lab, because this appears to be unnatural. They say they would continue eating meat from animals, which requires killing and harming animals.
- An anti intervention in nature attitude. There is a lot of wild animal suffering due to predation, parasitism, diseases, starvation,… Environmentalists are reluctant to intervene in nature to improve the well-being of wild animals. Such intervention are considered unnatural, “playing God” or human arrogance. Those environmentalists believe that we should leave nature alone, we should not interfere, in order to preserve its naturalness.
- An anti exotic species attitude. Some animals (e.g. rabbits) are introduced to new ecosystems by humans. As humans are involved in the spreading of these newly arrived animals, their presence in the host ecosystems is considered as unnatural. These exotic species can sometimes endanger local fauna and flora. For example herbivorous exotic animals might eat rare local plant species. Some environmentalists consider these herbivorous exotic animals as pests and want to control them. The culling of those herbivorous exotic animals harms those animals.
Our preference for naturalness causes many victims: poor people dying from vitamin deficiencies, children with compromised immune systems dying from viruses, layer hens and other animals suffering in factory farms, sick animals in organic livestock farms, bees dying from organic pesticides, futures generations harmed by climate change, sheep and cows used for their wool and skins, aquatic animals harmed by water pollution, wild animals suffering in nature and herbivorous exotic animals culled to protect plant species.
If we can give more than 10 examples where a preference for naturalness is harmful to other beings (decreasing their well-being), it is time to let go of this preference. This preference is merely our own preference. Nature itself doesn’t care about naturalness. And the many victims don’t care about naturalness, or if they did, they still value well-being above naturalness. If people are willing to harm other beings because they value naturalness, they give a stronger preference to their own values than to the values of their victims. This is a kind of arrogance or egoism.
A preference for naturalness is comparable to an esthetic preference for art. Just like naturalness, beauty is a very vague concept. Who decides what is beautiful and how much value beauty has? And a strong preference for beauty can be harmful. Imagine a burning art museum, and you can save either a child or a painting. The painting itself doesn’t value its beauty and doesn’t care about the flames. The child does not want to sacrifice itself in the flames in order for you to save the painting. The child values well-being more than the beauty of the painting. If you save the painting instead of the child, you let your own preference for beauty overtrump the much stronger preference of the child to avoid the flames. We should never let our own vague and arbitrary preferences surpass the stronger preferences of others.
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