Food producers are exploiting the notion that ‘natural’ = ‘good’ to make money.
Until recently, I believed in this notion as well, but I have realised that the way we define ‘natural’ varies widely. Shoppers are trusting that choosing ‘natural’ food is morally right but in reality the food industry is the only beneficiary. I hope to explore the prevalence of this idea and why the rise of this kind of marketing is unhelpful and misleading.
What is natural?
Most of us would describe nature as the parts of the world without human interference – jungles and rolling hills and oceans. The truth is, humans can’t be separated from the natural world. We have planted trees, cleared land, domesticated and transported animals and plants and ultimately, humans occur just as naturally as any other animal on the planet. Cities and farms are just the ways humans have influenced the earth’s landscape, like deer grazing or beaver dams, even ant farming! Either everything we see is natural or nothing is.
One of the key reasons why the human population has exploded is because of our ability to control aspects of ‘nature’ and adapt our diets accordingly. When we were hunter-gatherers we did not have enough food to support a huge population. The domestication of plants and animals for agriculture allowed us to get to where we are today, and that process of evolution can not be deemed ‘unnatural’ just because no other species has cultivated food to the same degree.
Nature, then, is a concept we have created and it cannot be simplified to the absence of human agency.
Rise of Moral Consumerism
The world today is facing what experts are ominously calling ‘a perfect storm’ of events. To support our rapidly growing world population, by 2030 we need to find a way of producing 50% more food and energy and 30% more fresh water on not much more land than is currently used, while contending with the unpredictable effects of climate change (see right)1. Public concern for these issues has consequently been rising and increasing pressure is being put on consumers to make food choices that will reduce their carbon footprint, combat food insecurity and lift people in the supply chain out of poverty. The popularisation of vegetarianism, eating locally and eating ‘natural’ food have shown this.
There is, however a great deal of ambiguity in the definitions of ‘green’, ‘natural’ and ‘local’ food, which has left consumers open to manipulation 2. The food industry has tended towards focusing on consumer attitudes and perceptions towards naturalness rather than product standards. In other words, products marketed as natural can have a minimal carbon footprint, high animal welfare standards and no additives or the exact opposite but the label would still be the same.
Why do we think ‘natural’ = good?
According to Margaret Visser3:
If we are making decisions about food then we are being influenced by our emotions, our aims and our fantasies. Today, the notion of natural food as ‘good’ is coming from our aims as a society to preserve our planet and survive as a species, but that isn’t the only reason we associate goodness and nature with each other.
Nature was ‘moralised’ long ago, when citizens escaped their cities in medieval times to survive diseases like the plague, nature became synonymous with life, purity and freedom from human corruption. Today, nature is either considered to be a fount of goodness or as something to be exploited 4.
The food industry is taking advantage of the fact that consumers believe that natural = good (despite the ambiguity of what this means) by branding their man-made products as natural, organic, green, wild and free range, when the reality is very different.
If you look at the dairy aisle in your local supermarket, the ‘natural’ branding is obvious and abundant. First, let’s think about Natural Yogurt. As far as I can tell, the word ‘natural’ here just means that there is no added flavourings. It could also be called ‘plain’ yogurt. Products also frequently come in ‘sky blue’ and ‘grass green’ coloured packaging, daisies seem to be a go-to decoration and words reminiscent of the countryside are essential, for example YeoValley, Clover and Flora. If I were to make moral judgements of dairy products based on their packaging (like most consumers), I would think that the dairy industry was 100% environmentally friendly. The reality is that if we strip away the – plastic (!) – packaging and look at greenhouse gas emissions, the meat and dairy industry could be more damaging to the environment than the leading oil companies (see right).
Another example is seafood. Seafood is one of the last wild-caught food ‘items’ that appears in our supermarkets, but is ‘wild’ good? Free range, organic and wild food is perceived as more natural and therefore better by consumers. Fish that is wild-caught is all of these things, but the industry is causing irreparable damage to our marine environments. In UK waters, trawlers and dredging boats have damaged the sea beds and completely depleted stocks of profitable white-fish. However, while the fishing industry was devastating our seas, we as consumers were feeling good about ourselves because we chose ‘wild-caught’ over farmed fish.
The fish and dairy industries are just two examples of how consumers are being manipulated by marketing tactics into thinking they are making good moral decisions about food when the reality behind the packaging is anything but environmentally-friendly.
Is ‘nature’ here to stay?
In my opinion, the food industry needs to be pressured into providing clearer labelling and transparent branding, but I am sceptical that this will happen any time soon. In the meantime, if awareness is raised that all ‘natural’ products aren’t necessarily good for the environment, then we can at least make informed decisions rather than being misled and manipulated by the food industry.
The bottom line is, though the word ‘nature’ is ingrained in society, we needn’t continue to give it the same power over our food choices.
1 Beddington, J. 2009. Food, energy, water and the climate: A perfect storm of global events? London: Government Office for Science.
2 Borkfelt, S., S. Kondrup, H. Röcklinsberg, K. Bjørkdahl, and M. Gjerris. 2015. Closer to Nature? A Critical Discussion of the Marketing of “Ethical” Animal Products. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics 28 (6):1053-1073.
3 Lalonde, MP. (1992). Deciphering a meal again, or the anthropology of taste. Anthropology of Food 31: 1: 69-86
4 Murdoch, Jonathan, and Mara Miele. “‘Back to nature’: changing ‘worlds of production’in the food sector.” Sociologia ruralis 39.4 (1999): 465-483.