Are Paleo Diets More Natural Than GMOs?

What do we mean by “natural”?
What do we mean by “natural”?

What do we mean by “natural”?

In 1980 I subjected myself to a weeklong cleansing diet of water, cayenne pepper, lemon and honey, topped off with a 150-mile bicycle ride that left me puking on the side of the road. Neither this nor any of the other fad diets I tried in my bike-racing days to enhance performance seemed to work as well as the “see-food” diet one of my fellow cyclists was on: you see it, you eat it.

In its essence, the see-food diet was the first so-called Paleo diet, not today’s popular fad, premised on the false idea that there is a single set of natural foods—and a correct ratio of them—that our Paleolithic ancestors ate. Anthropologists have documented a wide variety of foods consumed by traditional peoples, from the Masai diet of mostly meat, milk and blood to New Guineans’ fare of yams, taro and sago. As for food ratios, according to a 2000 study entitled “Plant-Animal Subsistence Ratios and Macronutrient Energy Estimations in Worldwide Hunter-Gatherer Diets,” published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the range for carbohydrates is 22 to 40 percent, for protein 19 to 56 percent, and for fat 23 to 58 percent.

And what constitutes “natural” anyway? Humans have been genetically modifying foods through selective breeding for more than 10,000 years. Were it not for these original genetically modified organisms—and today’s more engineered GMOs designed for resistance to pathogens and herbicides and for better nutrient profiles—the planet could sustain only a tiny fraction of its current population. Golden rice, for example, was modified to enhance vitamin A levels, in part, to help Third World children with nutritional deficiencies that have caused millions to go blind. As for health and safety concerns, according to A Decade of EU-Funded GMO Research, a 2010 report published by the European Commission:

The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are notper se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.So why are so many people in a near moral panic over GMOs? One explanation may be found in University of California, Los Angeles, anthropologist Alan Fiske’s four-factor relational model theory of how people and objects interact: (1) communal sharing (equality among people); (2) authority ranking (between superiors and subordinates); (3) equality matching (one-to-one exchange); and (4) market pricing (from barter to money). Our Paleolithic ancestors lived in egalitarian bands in which food was mostly shared equally among members (communal sharing). As these bands and tribes coalesced into chiefdoms and states, unequal distribution of food and other resources became common (authority ranking) until the system shifted to market pricing.

Violations of these relations help to show how GMOs have come to be treated more like moral categories than biological entities. Roommates, for example, are expected to eat only their own food or to replace one another’s consumed items (equality matching), whereas spouses share without keeping tabs (communal sharing). If you invite friends to dinner, it would be disconcerting if they offered to pay for the meal, but if you dine at a restaurant, you are required to pay the bill and not summon the owner to your home for a comparable cuisine. All four relational models are grounded in our natural desire for fairness and reciprocity, and when there is a perceived violation, it creates a sense of injustice.

Given the importance of food for survival and flourishing, I suspect GMOs—especially in light of their association with large corporations such as Monsanto that operate on the market-pricing model—feel like an infringement of communal sharing and equality matching. Moreover, the elevation of “natural foods” to near-mythic status, coupled with the taboo many genetic-modification technologies are burdened with—remember when in vitro fertilization was considered unnatural?—makes GMOs feel like a desecration. It need not be so. GMOs are scientifically sound, nutritionally valuable and morally noble in helping humanity during a period of rising population. Until then, eat, drink and be merry.

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