Getting Nostalgic about 'Nature'

Article excerpt

One of the few diverting aspects of Britain's largely joyless European election campaign has been the Natural Law Party's approach to the issues. Other parties say simply that a particular version of Britain's relationship with the rest of Europe would be a rather good or bad thing--whatever. The Natural Law Party, on the other hand, promotes the values of Transcendental Meditation and yogic flying, an advanced form of the art which consists of flapping your knees while bouncing around in something like the lotus position. Apparently this has already lessened levels of violence in both Merseyside and the Middle East. The Natural Lawyers do, however, have one concrete political policy. The party wants a Europewide ban on all genetically modified crops.

In this, if in little else, the Natural Law Party is very much in the mainstream. The British public has taken against genetically modified crops in a big way. Activists uproot them and supermarkets attempt not to furnish their customers with them. This week the Prince of Wales--a landowner and organic farmer--came out against them for the umpteenth time, a piece of nonnews that still managed to provoke headlines throughout the realm.

Europeans have in general been more skeptical about genetically modified crops than Americans, who have so far swallowed the idea, and the food, with relatively few qualms. And among the Europeans the Brits have been particularly adamant in their refusal to have any truck with such things. The recent history of British agricultural politics--the culling of millions of cows for fear that their increasing madness was spreading into the population at large--has left the public profoundly distrustful of "unnatural" tinkering in the food chain. The prince says that he wants us to reject all genetic modification and instead "work with nature for the long-term benefit of humankind."

The problem with this desire is that nature has no interest at all in the long-term benefit of humankind. Nature has no interest in anything. And even if it did, mankind has been overriding nature routinely for millennia. That's what agriculture is all about. A "natural" Britain would be a woodland that could feed only a few--when not covered by the glaciers of a "natural" ice age. Selective breeding--a subject royalty understands in its bones--removed nature from the farmyard long before the first endonucleases started to cut up the first artificial strands of DNA.

People like the prince use "nature" not biologically but nostalgically, to refer to a time when things were not so dashed artificial. …