Thursday, April 17, 2008

Book review- Botany of Desire

Botany of Desire is about looking at the world through the view point of plants. The book highlights the interactions between plants and humans. The author Michael Pollan, who has also written The Omnivore's Dilemma, seems to set out to show how plants have adapted and evolved as a means to employ us humans as part of their spread just like they have evolved to attract bees, birds and other pollinators. The book is split into four sections, each focusing on a different plant, first are apples, second are tulips, third are marijuana and fourth are potatoes.

The section on apples focuses of the myth and the actual man of Johnny Appleseed and the growth of apples as the frontier of the US was opened up. As a history person, it was interesting to see how one man was able to create a growth of a crop that had great value and that was spread with the settlers pretty much as they pushed the boundary of the "wilderness". Now the reason they grew the apples was to make cider, mostly of the alcoholic variety and not as a fruit to be eaten, which then leads to the kinds of apples they were growing. It is also interesting for me as I love hard cider, but apples as a fruit to be eaten that are sweet are a relatively new idea dating back to only the prohibition era. So as the types and tastes of the apples that were desired changed so did the types of apples that were grown, which led to the consolidation of types of apples from many to only a few. It was interesting and sad to see the ways in which as Americans we wanted only a limited kind of apples, those that were big and sweet, we have limited the types of apples that are grown and hence have cut off some of the variation in apples.

The section on Tulips was the hardest for me to enjoy. On one hand the Dutch Tulipmania was interesting, but the depth in which he looks at the pollination of flowers was a bit much for me. I am just not as interested in plants that serve as purely measures of beauty and are more esthetic than practical, I guess.

The next section of Marijuana was again interesting to me. Although I am not really a pot smoker and have only smoked pot a handful of times, it was interesting to see how a plant that had no intrinsic purpose other than as a way to make rope has become one that is used for recreational purposes much more often. The cannabis plant starts out as mainly used for the strength of the hemp fibers to make rope in America as the type that would allow for intoxication will not grow well in our climate except in limited areas. As the types of cannabis that exist are combined we find that we can create a plant that will grow in a wider variety of climates that will also allow for the same intoxicating effects. This section also highlighted another problem with the War on Drugs, when the federal government started to really crack down on marijuana in the mid-1980s and hence marijuana growers were forced to go underground more than they were and were forced to create better and stronger plants to withstand the forced growth in basically indoor greenhouses, they created a stronger and more potent intoxicant. Hence the War on Drugs which was supposed to lessen these drugs only made them stronger as man started to learn to create stronger plants. There was also increased hybridization of the pot plants to make them more suited to growing smaller and producing more of the parts that we want to get high. This also drives up the price of pot and we create more growers not less. So maybe banning pot was not such a great idea, huh.

The fourth section was on potatoes. This section, in many ways, focused on the increased involvement of corporations, specifically Monsanto, in the growing and manipulation of plants to create what we as humans want. Pollan is able to get some NewLeaf potato plants from Monsanto that are supposed to be genetically altered so that the potato bugs cannot eat them or at least they die when they try to eat the potato plant. He wants then to see if they do truly work as a natural pesticide and also to see if he can see or taste a difference in these potatoes over the other potatoes in his garden. In combination with this experiment, he meets with several farmers who grow potatoes, two of the farmers used the NewLeaf and the other one was an organic farmer. The farmers who were using the genetically altered plants were interesting, one of the farmers grew the altered plants for corporate America who wants these perfect potatoes for their french fires and other products, but never fed them to his family; his own garden is purely organic. And he says that most of the farmers he knows, do not eat their own products either. Another of the farmers, used the genetically altered products regularly and even fed them to Pollan in a potato salad. But when he was challenged about how the corporations were affecting his farm, he did say that the corporations were creating another noose around his neck even with a Monsanto representative sitting at the table with them. Of course the organic farmer was a great proponent of the organic farming and pointed out all of the positives of organic farming, As to the NewLeaf potatoes that Pollan had planted, he said that they looked fine, but by the end of the book, he couldn't eat them. He didn't feel comfortable with them as there is no way of knowing how the splicing of genetics to create a natural pesticide would affect his own self after eating them. He noted that he knew that it was very possible that he and many others had eaten the NewLeaf potatoes at a McDonalds or any other fast food restaurant even though McDonalds did end up saying they would not buy the NewLeaf potatoes after much pressure was put on them, but for a while they were using these potatoes. He even thought of taking them to a community pot luck, but then would have felt guilty if he did not tell everyone that the potatoes were genetically altered and then who would want to eat, knowingly, genetically altered food.

Overall, it is an interesting book in the view of how humans and plants interact. The reader sees how much that human desire creates an impetus for us to alter plants to fit our needs. We select plants that are the biggest, the prettiest, the sweetest, the most intoxicating and the most profitable. We alter the plants to fit what we want from them. Sure, up till the most current times we were not altering the genetics of plants, we were only utilizing the mutations that nature had created, but then we did propagate these mutations and continue to grow only the ones that we liked thus limiting the diversity in nature. But with the beginning of Gregor Mendel and his pea plants (thank you high school biology) we began to alter plant genetics, we began to play with nature and make it into what we, as humans, thought it should be. Pollan seems to argue that plants change and evolve to suit us as well as bees and birds because we are as important to their survival as any other animal. He may be somewhat true in this assertion, we do ensure that some plants live, we do ensure that some plant's genetics continue on, but the key here is SOME. Bees do not look at flowers and pick the flower that is the prettiest, they do not decide to cross the red flower with the white flower to make a pink flower, they are attracted to something different. The relationship between the bee and the plant is symbiotic. I am not as convinced that the relationship between humans and plants is nearly as equal when taken in the general. We do not advance a whole species of plants, just the ones that please us. One final point, Pollan seems to indicate that there is some order, in his opinion, to the evolution of plants to attract humans, where as I see the evolution of plants as random combinations of mutations in which some work and some don't.

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