“So does this mean that, when it comes to saying what’s natural, anything goes? I don’t think so. In fact, I think there’s some philosophical wisdom we can harvest from, of all places, the Food and Drug Administration. When the federal judges couldn’t find a definition of “natural” to apply to the class-action suits before them, three of them wrote to the F.D.A., ordering the agency to define the word. But the F.D.A. had considered the question several times before, and refused to attempt a definition. The only advice the F.D.A. was willing to offer the jurists is that a food labeled “natural” should have “nothing artificial or synthetic” in it “that would not normally be expected in the food.” The F.D.A. states on its website that “it is difficult to define a food product as ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth,” suggesting that the industry might not want to press the point too hard, lest it discover that nothing it sells is natural.
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The F.D.A.’s philosopher-bureaucrats are probably right: At least at the margins, it’s impossible to fix a definition of “natural.” Yet somewhere between those margins there lies a broad expanse of common sense. “Natural” has a fairly sturdy antonym — artificial, or synthetic — and, at least on a scale of relative values, it’s not hard to say which of two things is “more natural” than the other: cane sugar or high-fructose corn syrup? Chicken or chicken nuggets? G.M.O.s or heirloom seeds? The most natural foods in the supermarket seldom bother with the word; any food product that feels compelled to tell you it’s natural in all likelihood is not.
But it is probably unwise to venture beyond the shores of common sense, for it isn’t long before you encounter either Scylla or Charybdis. At one extreme end of the spectrum of possible meanings, there’s nothing but nature. Our species is a result of the same process — natural selection — that created every other species, meaning that we and whatever we do are natural, too. So go ahead and call your nuggets natural: It’s like saying they’re made with matter, or molecules, which is to say, it’s like saying nothing at all.
And yet at the opposite end of the spectrum of meaning, where humanity in some sense stands outside nature — as most of us still unthinkingly believe — what is left of the natural that we haven’t altered in some way? We’re mixed up with all of it now, from the chemical composition of the atmosphere to the genome of every plant or animal in the supermarket to the human body itself, which has long since evolved in response to cultural practices we invented, like agriculture and cooking. Nature, if you believe in human exceptionalism, is over. We probably ought to search elsewhere for our values.”