Thursday, March 5, 2015

What's "Natural"?

Two recent surveys have had the wheels in my brain churning. The first is a survey finding that 80% of Americans want food containing DNA to be labeled. The second is a survey from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where scientists and non-scientists were surveyed on a variety of topics, and 88% of scientists said that GMOs were safe compared to 37% of non-scientists surveyed. It was the single question with the broadest gap in results.

I've been thinking a lot about these and I've shared my thoughts on the importance of education to address the knowledge gap in a previous post. But I was stumped in trying to understand exactly what it is that concerns people about GMOs. Sure, I've seen all the crazy memes about GMOs and cancer, but there's got to be some deep fundamental fear or concern that leads people to believe these memes in the first place.

In an attempt to better understand concerns and to share what I've learned, I reached out to the local high school where I live, provided my credentials, and told the head of the science department that I'd be happy to chat with students about biotech crops. Two teachers took me up on the offer and over the last month, I had the opportunity to chat with students from freshman and senior classes about biotech crops. I also chatted with them about my career in human genetics and encouraged them to consider careers in STEM.

It was fantastic and I learned a lot. In talking with them, one point really stood out in terms of concerns/fears about GMOs: the word "natural". Some of the freshmen stated that they didn't like the concept behind GMOs because it wasn't "natural". This stood in stark contrast with the discussions I had with the seniors, where the word "natural" was never mentioned. Furthermore, as the seniors debated the topic, we were forced to create an arbitrary definition for the term GMO to focus our discussion because multiple times the students brought up the fact that "everything is modified" or "what's the difference between a GMO and a seedless watermelon if they're both made in the lab". The seniors had tons of questions about pesticides, biofortified crops, and labeling, but I think that the freshmen left terrified about our conversations on mutagenesis. One of them stated "it just doesn't seem right. It's so unnatural".

Natural. If you think about it, it's entirely subjective. What's natural to you might not be to me. My mom is an orchid lover and she had dozens of orchids growing on hanging coconut mats in our courtyard in Venezuela. She'd probably say that the orchid I have growing in the pot on my counter isn't natural. Someone else could have pointed to her flower collection and stated that it wasn't natural compared to the orchids growing on trees in the wild. Who's to say that these perspectives aren't right/wrong?

I think that each one of us has a subjective notion of what's "natural" in our minds, and if it doesn't fit within that framework then we tend to reject it. Vaccines are a great example: it seems "unnatural" to have a needle go into your arm and to inject a substance. I actually heard an individual on a radio talk show describe how she wasn't going to get the flu shot for this very reason.

It turns out that rejecting what's unnatural is actually a "thing" used in arguments and is known as "appeal to nature", whereby one states that what is natural is better. In a previous post, I explained how most of the "toxins" and pesticides we ingest are naturally occurring substances found in our food, some of which are known carcinogens (see! I used the word "natural"!!). Yet we're MUCH more concerned about synthetic pesticides and other "artificial" substances found in our food. I think the same is true about GMOs: we deem these to be unnatural and therefore "worse". They were made in a lab and are therefore artificial and not "as good".

This "appeal to nature" is what drives the use of the term "natural" plastered over hundreds of food items, and there's even debates to determine what can/should be deemed natural for a food label. When something says "all-natural ingredients", what does that even mean? After all, it was processed in a factory since it's in a container, so doesn't that make it "unnatural"? As person who had gestational diabetes during her pregnancy and was able to control it through diet and exercise, let me tell you that our bodies can't tell the difference between a bite of candy that has X grams of sugar and an orange that has X grams of "natural sugar" (of course, the orange has more vitamins/nutrients, but I'm focusing exclusively on the sugar content for this analogy). So when I see items that say "made from natural cane sugar", I get pretty irritated because somehow that label is trying to convey that it's healthier or better than ingredients made from what must be "unnatural" sugars.

The spouse is watching Downton Abbey on the laptop next to me, and I'm reminded of the episode where they brought in a phonograph. It created such a kerfuffle because it was against tradition and not the way things had always been done. It's similar to our discussion here about what's "natural".

What surprised me in chatting with the students was the immense difference that just a few extra years of high school biology made, and it honestly gave be a bit of hope that with scientific education and communication, we might be able to make a difference in the discourse surrounding biotech crops.

Also, if there any topics/papers that you want me to review, please send me a note. And if you haven't subscribed to this blog, please add your email to the subscription list. You won't get spammed :) I don't post frequently enough for that!


  1. Please tell me you made a typo at the beginning of your blog when you wrote, "80% of Americans want food containing DNA to be labeled". Surely, you meant "GMOs", not "DNA"!

    1. Not a typo. Check out the hyperlink. The survey's actually been done twice, because the first time it was thought that the order of the questions may have biased the respondent. But the same numbers were seen the second time around when the order of questions was altered.

    2. Here are the links to the actual surveys (the hyperlink I have the blog post is to a Washington Post article reviewing the results of the survey):
      First time question was asked:
      Second time question was asked:


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