The Dotany of Besire

DesireHello friends, sorry I’m late, but I have a good excuse. I wanted to finish reading Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire” for you. (Don’t let the title of this post throw you.) I think it was well worth the wait.

The book is divided into four chapters (with an introduction). Each chapter focuses on a single plant (almost) and each of these is meant to signify the fulfillment of a desire. The plants are the apple, the lily, marijuana, and the potato describing sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control respectively. Pollan’s thesis is that Darwin’s concept of artificial selection is a bit anthropocentric. We are part of nature, not above or outside of it. Put simply, “domesticated” plants are using us as much as we are using them. It’s an attractive idea, and one that Pollan supports nicely. While the second and third chapters are indeed fascinating, they are not terribly relevant to food consumption; their reading I leave to your leisurely prerogative.

The first chapter (the apple, sweetness) should have some special interest to students here at the U of R. Apples were one of the first, and certainly the most prominent local foods on our campus. Pollan helps hone our notion of local foods. Apples are most likely native to Kazakhstan. As American as apple pie? Tell that to the Almatians. My point here is that our notions are less stable than we like to think.

The fourth chapter (the potato, control) focuses mainly on GMOs. That may simplify the matter more than is fair (again, I encourage you to read the book), but it suits my purposes (I’d make a terrific politician). The potato is used as the paragon of the new foods. Pollan tells the story of Monsanto’s development of a potato that contains genes for Bt, a pesticide. If you are familiar with environmental history, you are no doubt expecting Pollan to rail against GMOs at this point. He doesn’t. He is wary of the NewLeaf potato, and he worries about the rapid development of predators resistant to the pesticide, but he is dealing with two evils. At the end of the day, Pollan does not declare a clear winner: GMO or business as usual. He does advocate for organic foods, but he sees the problems with that. Pollan would not make a wonderful politician. He sees the complexity of issues, and is unwilling to pacify his readers.

So there you have it: a book without answers. That is not to say it’s a waste of time though. Beyond being thoroughly enjoyable (the main difficulty was reading while laughing), it is thoroughly thoughtful.

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