I’m a pretty big fan of Michael Pollan’s writing, having read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. I find that in this current environment where we jump to demonize any food processing and practically preach to those who shop anywhere other than farmers markets and buy anything other than local organic, Pollan is rather evenhanded. He is certainly a champion for the local/organic movement, but he understands that these other processes have their place and that socioeconomics play a heavy role in how we purchase our food. He’s much more realistic than many of the others in the field.
The Botany of Desire (2001) comes before all of that and focuses not on how we eat, but how certain plants came to be as we know them today. We tend to think of evolution as survival of the fittest, but often, when humans get involved, it’s survival of the most desired. Pollan explores this through four desires and their corresponding plants – sweetness (the apple), beauty (the tulip), intoxication (marijuana), and control (the potato).
Much of the apple section focuses on John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, and his contribution the most prolific fruit in America. What Chapman did was to anticipate where land would be developed next and plant seeds so that when settlers arrived, he had trees ready for sale. He was as much a shrewd businessman as anything else. (He also seemed to have a spotty personal life – there are some rumors of a ten-year-old bride that Pollan’s Chapman guide/enthusiast refused to address.) Also, I had no idea there were so many types of apples and that the seeds from each apple produce a different type of tree! That’s some crazy botany right there.
While I found it interesting to explore why humans and animals desire mind-altering plants and that tulips were once exchanged like currency, I found the section on the potato to be particularly relevant to current times. I assumed most of this section would focus on the potato’s role in Irish history, but instead it tells a new story of control – Monsanto’s NewLeaf potato, which contains its own pesticides. Frighteningly, much of potato genetic engineering and use of toxic pesticides is driven by McDonald’s need for potatoes that will produce long, unblemished fries. Pollan speaks with farmers who are in favor of genetically engineered potatoes and even grows his own batch of NewLeafs at his home, but, though he’s eaten them at one of the farmer’s tables, he can’t quite bring himself to cook and eat the ones he pulls from his garden.
It’s telling that this story of artificial selection ends with genetic engineering. While the abundant existence of apples, tulips, and marijuana was driven by human desires, the manipulation we take with the potato is far more intimate and, honestly, a bit scary. Even though I’m not part of the Only Organic/Only Local brigade and I acknowledge that we’ve been eating genetically engineered food for a long time (really, every Haas avocado is genetically engineered), actually changing the genetic sequence of a food item bristles my sci-fi feathers a bit too much. But that is the world we live in and Pollan does an excellent job of non-judgmentally tracing our involvement in plant development for our own desires.