The birds chirping in the trees, the cows basking in the sun, the lettuce and tomatoes yielding up their bounty in due season, nary a smokestack in sight.
It’s a nice vision, but real life is considerably more complicated.
Producing meat and milk at a commercial scale produces manure, which has to be managed somehow, and raw farm products often have to be processed to make them edible or desirable.
Lots of people make inaccurate assumptions about nature, and those mistakes can lead to unfounded fears and poor choices about food, according to Alan Levinovitz, a religion professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
His book “Natural: How Faith in Nature’s Goodness Leads to Harmful Fads, Unjust Laws, and Flawed Science” was published in April, and he spoke about his ideas on May 7 with the Animal Agriculture Alliance.
The group’s annual Stakeholder Summit, planned for Arlington, Virginia, was held virtually because of the coronavirus and drew a record 515 attendees.
The ideal of naturalness has a strong pull, Levinovitz said. It moves people whether they are devout or atheistic. It has cachet across cultures and eras of history.
Nature has taken on key attributes of the Christian God. It’s viewed as perfect, the original and unsullied way things were before humans crashed onto the scene.
In some ways, naturalness is even more compelling than the idea of God because it appeals to so many groups of people with varying beliefs, Levinovitz said.
But when nature is perceived as divine, natural foods are not subject to the cost-benefit analysis people might apply to other choices.
They are seen to be positive for all things — good for human health, the environment and livestock. The potential for disadvantages goes unconsidered.
“God is not good for some things and bad for other things, and in this vision of nature, neither is naturalness,” Levinovitz said. “It is good in every possible way.”
But the natural world is not as beneficent or orderly as people would like to believe. For all the leaping lambs and babbling brooks, there are volcanoes and blizzards, screwworms and coronaviruses.
The meat industry has tried to use natural claims to its advantage, such as by warning that plant-based meat alternatives are produced with a large number of unfamiliar ingredients.
Naturalness does serve the human preference for simplicity over complexity, but Levinovitz said playing to this dichotomy is unproductive.
“People need to get over that if they are actually to live in a world where industrial food production, ‘unnatural’ food production, isn’t a bad word, in which unnatural doesn’t mean evil,” he said.
To break down the narrative of naturalness, Levinovitz suggested the ag industry start with less ethereal priorities — having enough calories to feed all of the people in the world, making sure people can afford the food they want.
In this view, technology is not an alien intrusion on the Edenic landscape, and it’s not surprising that large-scale agriculture can play a role in mitigating climate change.
Wanting to reduce environmental degradation is a key reason people seek naturalness. But Levinovitz believes many people take this inclination too far, as he said farmer-author Joel Salatin did in this line from a 2016 book: “My Christian friends embarrass me with their cavalier attitude toward resource use, toxicity, pollution, animal care, and stewardship.”
Most people want to act responsibly with natural resources, harmful chemicals and livestock, but one can’t just assume that everything natural is good and that everything artificial is sinful, Levinovitz said.
Many farmers, in fact, would argue that precision machinery, data-driven nutrition programs and properly designed housing can improve the environment and the well-being of animals.
Naturalness is also appealing because it provides an understandable origin story for food.
Many people are far removed from agriculture, and the food-production concepts that are most accessible to them — such as gardening and hobby farming — necessarily differ from commercial-scale practices.
In response to this uncertainty, the ag industry must be transparent, explaining what farms do and why they do it, Levinovitz said.
When naturalness rules the day, farms may be dogged by unrealistic expectations. Consumers may condemn justifiable farming practices simply because they don’t have the full picture.
Being humble, farmers should acknowledge that they don’t have the last word on responsible living either, but they can still be honest about their operations, Levinovitz said.
In the end, he said, the ag industry needs to focus not on food that is natural but on food that is good.