Questioning the natural approach

Many of us have a belief that the natural way is usually better, but author Nathanael Johnson debunks many common misconceptions in his new book, "All Natural: A Skeptic's Quest to Discover if the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier."

An investigative journalist by trade who was raised by nature-loving, hippie parents, Johnson brings a uniquely balanced perspective to his research. He's out to explore, as he calls them, "the interesting nuances in the middle ground."

Johnson notes that most people just feel better when they're out in nature, compared to the furtive, compulsive and weak feeling engendered by, for example, spending time indoors playing video games.

But nature isn't always friendly.

Before the advent of modern medicine, giving birth was an often deadly undertaking. New technologies have caused childbirth deaths to plunge almost 99 percent.

But on the flip-side, one in three American babies is now born via Caesarean section. The maternal mortality rate is inching back up, and everyone from mothers to doctors is beginning to agree that the surgery is performed too often, Johnson writes.

When it comes to the question of drinking raw milk, the United States averages 100 cases of raw dairy poisoning each year — but that's out of approximately 9 million Americans consuming unpasteurized dairy, he writes.

The odds are low that anyone will fall seriously ill or die from drinking raw milk, but Johnson also relates the heart-breaking tale of children who were hospitalized and suffered permanent kidney failure after drinking organic raw milk that contained E. coli bacteria. With their immature immune systems, kids are among those who are most likely to get sick, even as their well-meaning, raw milk-enthusiast parents are unscathed.

As for raw food, many people are embracing a diet free of cooked food, even though heating food kills bacteria, tenderizes fibers, releases more nutrients in some cases and breaks down poisons naturally found in some vegetables. Humans have evolved alongside the campfire. We've lost our large, powerful jaws and the muscles needed to effectively chew up a diet of raw food, Johnson writes.

Although Johnson debunks many popular myths about nature, he also clearly shows how humans have gone down a horrifying path when it comes to the treatment of pigs in modern, high-tech, pig-raising factories. And they are truly factories, bearing no resemblance to traditional farms.

Johnson visits a gestation facility where hundreds of sows are held in rows. Each one spends its life alone, standing on a 2-by-7-foot rectangle of concrete, unable to turn around. These creatures, which are at least as intelligent as dogs, exhibit neurotic behaviors induced by boredom.

Today's pigs are regularly given antibiotics to ward off infections that could race through packed facilities and decimate the populations inside. Sows are artificially inseminated both for efficiency's sake, and so they don't come into contact with a potentially disease-carrying boar.

Workers must wear special clothing to protect themselves from ammonia fumes in the giant buildings. Meanwhile, family farms in the Midwest have been largely wiped out and consumers get worse-tasting meat because stressed pigs have more acid in their tissues, Johnson writes.

On a hopeful note, he also visits a new breed of pig farmer — those embracing a more natural, traditional way. Yes, the pork they produce costs more, but some consumers are willing to pay extra. Johnson sees pigs frolicking in a field of cornstalks, dashing about, rolling on the ground and digging their faces ear-deep into the earth.

It's a reminder that animals — and humans — need nature in all of its perplexing and complicated glory.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or

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