The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-eye View of the World by Michael Pollan. Random House, 2001.
In recent years, Michael Pollan has spent a considerable amount of time at the top of the best-seller list with his books The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. There’s even an Omnivore’s Dilemma for Kids. My interest in his earlier book was piqued by a recent PBS special based on The Botany of Desire. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it if you have a chance to view it.
The idea behind The Botany of Desire is simply this: perhaps we are not, as we think, controlling plants for our own purposes but rather they are using our tastes to forward their own agenda, which is to extend their own range and numbers. Pollan looks at four different plants that owe much of their success to their ability to satisfy a human desire. Apples fulfill a wish for sweetness, tulips for beauty, marijuana for intoxication and potatoes satisfy the desire to have control over a food source.
Each of the four sections is interesting. Pollan is an amiable guide and the book is an entertaining read. My favorite, however, was the concluding essay on the potato. His description of what goes into growing a potato on a typical Idaho potato farm is an eye-opener. More than that, a shocker. It’s more like a chemical factory process than something you would connect with a garden. The regimen of pesticides and fertilizers that are applied relentlessly across the season is mindboggling. Part of the driving force behind this method of farming is another corporation, McDonald’s, who require a particular type of potato, the Russet Burbank, to produce the perfect fry, thus promoting a monoculture of Burbanks.
From this discussion Pollan seques into a discussion of the New Leaf potato, a genetically-modified vegetable that has Basillus thuringiensis (Bt) a common bacterium found in the soil introduced into its genetic makeup. The Bt makes the potato resistant to the scourge of potato plants, the Colorado Potato Beetle. How fields and fields, countless acres, of this genetically-modified plant would affect pollinators like bees or the resistance of non-Bt plants or weeds, or even the long-term health of people eating it is not well understood. Ultimately, there is agreement that the attacking beetles would become resistant to the modified plant, perhaps in 30 years. Then what? Monsanto, the developer of the plant doesn’t know. They say: We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Trust us!. Pollan also briefly discusses another wonder from the giant corporation, the terminator seed, a seed that has been modified not to reproduce. I suppose it’s overly dramatic to call such an invention the incarnation of evil, but really, what kind of greed does it take to even conceive of such a thing?
No discussion of potatoes could fail to look at the Irish Potato Famine. The Irish were among the first Europeans to embrace the plant, introduced from the Americas by the Spanish. The potato played a vital role in allowing the population of Ireland to climb from three million to eight million in less than a century. Young men could marry earlier and support larger families. As the supply of labour increased, wages fell, keeping the Irish impoverished. When the blight that destroyed the potato crop hit in 1846, and again in 1846 and ’48 one in every eight persons died, and thousands emigrated to America. Ireland’s population was halved within a decade.
The argument for commercial farms and genetically-modified crops rests in part on the view that the world’s population cannot be fed by any other means. It seems that we are perhaps heading in the same direction as the 19th-century Irish. Our population has grown too large to be supported by conventional farming methods. When the cheap oil that fuels it all collapses, what then?
My favorite part of the book is the conclusion, in which Pollan talks about his own garden, the neat, orderly rows of the spring season, the wild abandon of the late summer. He speaks of the pleasure of digging up potatoes with a rapture that leaves me longing to get out in the dirt. It’s been a few years since I grew potatoes. Hmm. Next year…potatoes.