Tuesday, July 20, 2021

On the Coffee Table: Michael Pollan

Title: The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World
Author: Michael Pollan

via Amazon

Before his career-defining treatise The Omnivore's Dilemma (read here), Michael Pollan wrote a book called The Botany of Desire.  He examines the complex and fascinating relationships between humans and four plant-based products: apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes.  The book also inspired a PBS documentary hosted by Pollan.  We'd already watched it several years ago so I was already familiar with the material.  As is often the case, the book probes a bit deeper than the movie.

The basic premise: domestication is a two-way street.  Plants (and animals) often have as much to gain from their associations with humans as we do.  The four botanical stars of the book have been especially successful.  Each began in a remote corner of the globe (the first three in Asia, the fourth in South America).  Each has become world-famous, one even world-essential.  All four have been transformed biologically by the contact and each has a magnificent story to tell.


Johnny Appleseed was real.  Born John Chapman, he transported thousands of apple seeds into what was, in the early 19th century, the great American wilderness of Ohio and Indiana.  At the time, the greatest value in an apple was the cider, though alcoholic still safer for even children to drink than the local water supply.  The genius of an apple is its adaptability, allowing it to adjust to each new environment it enters.  However, over time, the capitalistic efficiency of monocultures has greatly reduced the varieties available to eat.  We'll come back to this problem in a bit.


Flowers (like fruit) exist entirely as an advertisement to animals: here, come swim around in my loveliness in order to help me reproduce.  As such, it's no surprise the relationship between humans and flowers goes back a long time.  Tulips are particularly interesting for the mania they inspired, particularly among the Dutch, in the 17th century.  


Perhaps not surprisingly, this is the most interesting chapter.  Humanity's history with intoxicating plants is long and intimate.  Quite convincingly, Pollan draws a direct line between intoxicants and the development of all major world religions.  The recent history of the plant itself is fascinating.  Harsh crackdowns in 1980s America forced growers underground where they developed new, more potent strains in the greenhouse than ever could have been raised in the garden.  Once a niche segment of the overall market, domestically-grown pot now dominates the American industry.


Potatoes kick the snot out of grains as an efficient food source.  They're easier to grow, easier to convert into food and more nutritious.  World history and human geography reflect this basic truth pretty clearly.  They are also a primary focus for biotech.  Pollan's exploration revolves around NewLeaf, a potato genetically-engineered by Monsanto to resist pests.  Whether chemically or genetically facilitated, the potato industry's biggest vulnerability is a result of monoculture.  All those McDonald's fries, not to mention all of the other corporately produced potato-based products that rule the snack food industry, all come from the same spud: the Russet Burbank.  Since all Russet Burbanks are susceptible to the same diseases and pests, the entire world food supply is vulnerable to them.  This is not an exaggeration.  This is exactly what happened in the Irish Potato Famine.  A farmer's entire field could be wiped out by blight, literally overnight.

The world has changed in the 20 years since Pollan wrote the book.  Marijuana is now comfortably on the road to legalization in the United States and many other countries.  Also, pushback against GMOs has been strong.  Pollan and others like him have actually had some political impact.  Still, one should never underestimate corporate power over our food supply.  Monsanto survived the lawsuits to be bought out by Bayer in 2016 for a cool $66 billion.  The broader concept isn't going anywhere.

Our daughter has both a strong interest in biology and a strong altruistic drive, though she doesn't yet know what she wants to do with either.  I think it's time to sell her on responsible agriculture as a cause.  I'll be giving her this book in a pile with Omnivore's Dilemma, Fast Food Nation and The Third Plate (read here).  Stay tuned.

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