Americans have until May 10th to help the Food and Drug Administration with one of philosophy's greatest riddles: What is the meaning of "natural"?
Given our current attitudes, the riddle might be better described as religious. Data show that 51 percent of us shop for "all natural" food – shelling out some $40 billion a year on these products. We even choose natural over organic, market analysts have found. Natural has become the non-denominational version of kosher, and orthodoxy is on the rise.
The religiosity is apparent in the 4,863 public comments that have already been submitted to the FDA online. Natural and unnatural read like Manichean synonyms for good and evil. Some comments are explicitly theological: "Natural should be limited to those ingredients that have been created by God." Others refer to violations of Mother Nature's intentions. Behind virtually all of them pulses an intense desire for salvation from modernity's perceived sins: GMOs, pesticides, chemicals, artificiality, synthetics. We ate, greedily, from the tree of scientific knowledge. Now we are condemned to suffer outside of Eden, unless we find a natural way back in.