(Almost) Nothing is Truly ‘Natural’ – Part 4

Cezanne nothing is natural fruit and vegetables painting still life
Nothing on this table is natural – not even the fruits. The Basket of Apples by Cézanne

Corn isn’t ‘natural’

In 2014, I created a series of infographics to help convey this message. Corn, for example, used to be a spindly grass-like plant called teosinte, which Native Americans farmed and bred through artificial selection until it resembled the yellow corn of today.

In 9000 years, sweetcorn has become 1000 times larger, 3.5 times sweeter, much easier to peel and much easier to grow than its wild ancestor. In the 15th century, when European settlers placed new selection pressures on the crop to suit their exotic taste buds, the corn evolved even further to become larger and multi-coloured. Corn no longer resembles the original teosinte plant at all.

Watermelon isn’t ‘natural’

Watermelon began as a hard, bitter fruit the size of a walnut. It caused inflammation and had an unpalatable bitter taste. Thousands of years of artificial selection (unintentional genetic engineering) have resulted in a modern watermelon that bears no resemblance to its African ancestor. Modern (artificial) watermelons are sweeter, juicier, more colourful and easier to grow than their ancestral varieties.

Peaches aren’t natural, either

Peaches used to be hard, cherry-sized fruits with giant pips. Like corn and watermelon, peaches became larger, sweeter and juicier over thousands of years of inadvertent genetic engineering.

Bananas, wheat, pigs and all farmed animals and plants are not natural

Before agriculture, carrots were white and spindly. Wheat was tall and scrawny with little calorific value. Apples were tiny and sour with giant pips (like crab-apples today). Strawberries were tiny, bananas had stones in them, and pigs were viscous creatures with tiny backsides that made for a not-so-delicious ham. Cows didn’t produce much milk (just enough for their own calves) and chickens were skinny little creatures that laid eggs weekly rather than daily. Every species that’s ever been farmed by humans has been genetically modified over time as a result.

I keep making this point because our ancestors deserve credit for their hard work: they toiled in the fields for thousands of years to breed plants and animals that are suited to our modern tastes and lifestyles. For modern humans to call the results of our ancestors’ hard work ‘natural’ is an insult to the millions of ancient farmers who worked so hard to produce them.

Engineers (including genetic engineers) know that humans have toiled for millennia to change nature and suit it to our own needs – animals became tamer and meatier, and plants started producing more edible portions. I want to counteract the misconception that humans encountered nature in a ‘pristine’ state.

[ancient humans] toiled in the fields for thousands of years to breed plants and animals that are suited to our modern tastes and lifestyles. For modern humans to call the results of their hard work ‘natural’ is an insult to our ancestors. – Animal Pharm (documentary)

I show the above documentary my Year 10 Science students to demonstrate what is currently being produced using genetic engineering techniques. The video explains all the concepts mentioned in this article and is accessible for and educated audience of any age.

This post is part 4 in a weekly series on chemophobia. Next week, we’ll look at the psychology behind chemophobia.


10 thoughts on “(Almost) Nothing is Truly ‘Natural’ – Part 4

  1. Love your blog. I posted on my Facebook. Wish you also had a FB page to share with a broader audience. Thanks so much. Lucila Silva, Chem E, CMU

    Sent from my iPad


  2. James
    The Royal Society of chemistry undertook research in this area. The report is here http://www.rsc.org/campaigning-outreach/campaigning/public-attitudes-chemistry
    Dr Martk Lorch thinks that chemists suffer from chemophobia-phobiai n a commentary on http://www.rsc.org/news-events/rsc-news/opinions/2015/jul/chemophobia-mark-lorch/
    Here is another article http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/2013/10/chemophobia
    You might like to read some Kat Day comments on https://thechronicleflask.wordpress.com/.
    I love the bit about warning our students. If you look at my website, http://www.microchemuk.weebly.com you will see where I now work part time, after 22 years at CLEAPSS, http://www.cleapss.org.uk and http://www.science.cleapss.org.uk . Our approach to safety is risk based and not hazard base which is a bit of a problem with some countries and people. I would question why those students are wearing gloves. See See https://solarsaddle.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/why-do-we-wear-disposable-gloves-in-chemistry-labs/.and
    Interesting articles and they make you think.
    Good articles and research
    Bob Worley


  3. Hello, do you have sources for the changes in peaches over time? Specifically, I would love to know the change in grams of sugars/carbs in peaches. Thanks


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