Engels and Natural Food

Engels writes in ‘Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy’, that:

“The immediate consequence of private property is trade – exchange of reciprocal requirements – buying and selling. This trade, like every activity, must under the dominion of private property become a direct source of gain for the trader; i.e. each must seek to sell as dear as possible and buy as cheap as possible. In every purchase and sale, therefore, two men with diametrically opposed interests confront each other. The confrontation is decidedly antagonistic, for each knows the intentions of the other – knows that they are opposed to his own. Therefore, the first consequence is mutual mistrust, on the one hand, and the justification of that mistrust – the application of immoral means to attain an immoral end – on the other. Thus, the first maxim of trade is secretiveness – the concealment of everything which might reduce the value of the article in question. The result is that in trade it is permitted to take the utmost advantage of the ignorance, the trust, of the opposing party, and likewise to impute qualities to one’s commodity which it does not possess. In a word, trade is legalised fraud.”

(Don’t overestimate my scholarship, by the way – I haven’t read the article itself, just found this quote in ‘Engels: A Very Short Introduction”. Also, one might protest – but sometimes I buy things and I’m really friendly with the seller! Well of course, but insofar as the trader seeks to be profitable, they will take the above-described stance; and insofar as they are profitable, they will drive out the less profitable)

Now upon reading that, what I immediately thought of was food additives.

There is a feeling, a tendency that I think is quite widespread, to prefer ‘natural’ food, and to disparage additives or artifice – especially the dreaded ‘E-numbers’. Foods proudly proclaim “no artificial colours or flavours!”, “all natural ingredients!” and so forth.

Now when you look at this straight up, it may seem odd. Humans have acquired their current relative food security by adjusting nature, by changing the things we eat and finding new artifices. I’d certainly much rather eat an industrially-made chocolate bar than a some cocoa beans. With ‘organic’ foods there’s some rationale – organic farming is less environmentally destructive. But I don’t think that’s the whole explanation – organic food carries this ‘natural’ aura.

Sometimes it’s suggested that natural things are better for you. I’m no scientist, but my impression of this is fairly underwhelming*.

But more to the point – shouldn’t we be awed and inspired by technology? Shouldn’t it thrill us to know that our species can make so much lovely food? Why do foods not advertise themselves as “100% artificial! Created using nothing but human brainpower and sand!” And you do find this in some places, and in the past. The vision that technology will liberate us, that greater productivity is a triumph of the human spirit. But now, not so much, as least in the cultural milieu I ambulate in.

What’s happened? I think it’s quite simple. We don’t identify with the scientists and engineers who build our food. We don’t trust them. We know that they are not motivated by our wellbeing. We know that their goal is to profit off us, even if that means exploiting us, deceiving us, or making us less healthy. And yet! And yet they provide us with, basically, everything we ever have. We depend on them (companies, supermarkets, the capitalist economy in general) completely – like a child depends on its parents. How then can we come to terms with the fact that they don’t care about us – that their attitude towards us is a calculating and self-interested one?

Like many victims of abuse, many people dependent on those they hate, we can’t bring ourselves to straightforwardly reject ‘the economy’, the shops and food companies. We displace our hostility into some other outlet – such as focusing on ‘natural’ foods.

The artifice of foods comes to symbolise the deceitful and selfish forces we perceive to be orchestrating the world. It’s going to rot us, to make us sick, to poison us – it’s like every other fantasy fear figure. We turn to the ‘natural’ world, with its wholesome images of farmers and their happy soon-to-be-murdered cows, men with weather-beaten faces gazing contemplatively at their olvie groves as the leaves shake in a gentle wind. We don’t do this because we start with some justified factual belief that ‘nature’ will provide health (‘nature’ provided tuberculosis and famine). We do this because ‘nature’ is somewhere outside this cynical society, so we romanticise it and suppose that we can ‘trust’ it in the way we cannot trust Procter&Gamble.

Of course there is a good factual case for a certain distrust of technology – namely that technology has allowed us to degrade the environment to a colossal degree. But that’s not really the same issue. That would lead us to focus on the effects human actions have on the environment, and to try to minimise those – including by keeping humans away from the vulnerable ‘environment’. What ‘natural foods’ are about is the opposite: focusing on the effects that ‘nature’ has on us humans, on its sort of intrinsic glow of vitality – which naturally leads into seeking greater contact between humans and nature. Sometimes greater contact may be beneficial, but sometimes we just to need to back the hell off and let nature do its own thing.

Conclusion: the vogue for natural or additive-free foods is a displacement of our awareness that capitalism is about deceit, mistrust and hostility.

* It seems reasonably true that unprocessed foods often contain more micronutrients (vitamins etc.), so fresh fruits and so forth are to some extent a good idea. But that clearly doesn’t apply to foods which are by nature processed, like crisps or pasta. And yes, plenty of additives have at various times been found to give you cancer. But the thing is, most natural foods give you cancer as well. In many cases, plants are doing absolutely everything they can to make you suffer for eating them. Hell, almost everything gives you cancer. E-numbers is a good example of how silly this can get – adverts sometimes boast of food containing no E-numbers, as if E-numbers are a certain chemically-defined group. They are not. They are anything which the “E”uropean Union has registered with a number in order to enable cross-language translation. Beeswax is an E-number, as is cellulose (what plants are made of). Monosodium glutamate is especially close to my heart – it’s a flavour enhancer! It enhances most flavours! It just makes them taste tastier. It is in this respect rather like…salt. But isn’t it bad for you? Well…no. Some people have anecdotes about feeling funny after going to Chinese Restaurants, and some people have theories about blood levels of gluatamic acid, but no-one has any actual evidence of ill-effects. When you test it rigourously, no results emerge.

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