Humans of the Corn

Pollan, M.. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. The Penguin Group, New York, New York. P15-119.

Pollan’s, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” tackles another side of food production not seen in, “The Botany of Desire.” This book starts off with discussing the history of corn showing the reader the beginnings of corn consumption in Mexico by the Maya, to modern day use of corn. He also discusses in part I of his book, “Industrial Corn,” the effects corn has had on the meat industry as well as on human health. “The Botany of Desire,” argues that the plants that thrive in a human dominant world are the ones that have evolved fast enough to keep up with us, not because we chose them. After reading part I of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” it is hard to disagree with Pollan in how much corn has shaped our history, government policies and health.

Pollan begins his discussion on corn by introducing George Naylor into his book, a corn farmer. By doing so, Pollan gives humanity and identity to corn farmers which makes it easier to relate to. On page 24, Pollan paints a picture of what the Naylor farm used to look like when his grandfather first started the family business. “There would be a fair amount of corn then too, but also fruits and other vegetables, as well as oats, hay and alfalfa to feed the pigs, cattle, chickens, and horses – horses being the tractors of that time.” In only two generations, this beautiful, diverse farm was converted to a farm that only produces corn and soy, the fate of many farms across America. This transition from highly diverse farms to land producing only one or two crops reminded me of a paper I read last week in Conservation Biology. The paper, “Decline of bumble bees (Bombus) in North America Midwest,” by Grixti et al. (2008) states that one of the reasons bees have been declining in number is because of this loss of diversity in farms (among an endless list of other reasons). A result of the declining bee population is a decrease in yield of crops. This is a reminder of the connectedness of nature and that every action has a reaction.

After discussing the importance of metaphors and first and last sentences in Plants and People class the other week, I found I was unknowingly looking for these in Pollan’s writing. My search did not last long as the first sentences I read on page 15 said, “Air-conditioned, odorless, illuminated by buzzing fluorescent tubes, the American Supermarket doesn’t present itself as having very much to do with Nature. And yet what is this place if not a landscape (man-made, it’s true) teeming with plants and animals?” Wow. What an attractive introduction. He is able to paint a picture of your typical supermarket and remind us what it truly is. A supermarket isn’t simply a place to get food to feed your family, it is filled with the products of nature meant to satisfy our hunger. Another last sentence I found had a high impact was on page 26 when he says, “Corn is the protocapitalist plant.” This is such a bold sentence because, in my opinion, Pollan is stating that the corn industry was the stepping stone for capitalism. The final last sentence I would like to bring up is found on page 119 after Pollan’s family visit to McDonald’s. “And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably, full.” This McDonald’s meal consisted of about half corn products and 4,510 calories. A meal designed to satisfy the Homo Sapiens desire for energy rich foods and the food industry’s desire to provide food that is cheap to make and tasty yet unsatisfying so we always have room for more corn rich food.

Pollan’s, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” is another perspective shifting piece of work. The perfect mix between facts and storytelling makes Pollan’s books an easy yet educational read. Corn has changed our farmers. It has also become a decision maker in federal policy making to ensure it continues to be produced at the volumes it currently is. And last, but not least, it has changed the way we eat. Corn has infiltrated our history, government and bodies which is why I would argue that corn is one of the most successful organisms on the planet. In the words of Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

References:

Grixti, J.C., L.T. Wong, S.A. Cameron, C. Favret. 2008. Decline of bumble bees (Bombus) in North American Midwest. Biological Conservation 142: 75-84.

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Humans of the Corn

The Transition to Farming

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, New York. P85-113, 131-156.

I recall picking up this book from the bookstore and reading the title, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” and thought what could this possibly have to do with plants? However, as Diamond argues throughout his book, it has everything to do with plants.

After the last reading from Diamond’s book I was disappointed to see that this week’s reading was another three chapters from “Guns, Germs, and Steel” (sigh). However, as I started to get into the book, I found it wasn’t as bad as I was anticipating it to be. Diamond’s scientific writing style suits this book because unlike Pollan’s storytelling book, Diamond’s writing seems to be more of a theory to a question he has. A very scientific approach indeed. Chapters 4-8 make up the part of the book, “The Rise and Spread of Food Production.” In these chapters he seeks to find explanations as to why food production succeeded where it did and when it did. Although, as he soon discovers, there are many factors to take into consideration and the explanation is much more complex than the idea that food production started in the areas with the most fertile vegetation.

The first question Diamond address in Chapter 4 is why did people start switching from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a plant and animal domestication lifestyle? Diamond argues that hunter-gatherer societies spent most of their time in search of food and travelling to new areas. This prevented large societies from forming as well as from parents giving birth to many children. However, with the domestication of plants and animals, societies were able to store food and remain in one place. This allowed for more children to be born, increasing population size. An increase in population and availability of food also allowed for some members of the society to specialize into other professions. This in turn led to well organized societies with new technology, the opportunity for diseases to spread and political organization. The title of this book finally made sense to me now! As Diamond points out, plant and animal domestication set off a chain reaction which allowed for the development of guns, germs and steel.

It is hard to imagine living in a hunter-gatherer dominant society but Diamond argues that, “… we should not suppose that the decision to adopt farming was made in a vacuum, as if the people had previously had no means to feed themselves. Instead, we must consider food production and hunting-gathering as alternative strategies competing with each other.” What he further explains is that it was no smooth transition from hunter-gathering societies to farming societies. Many farmers had to work much harder than their hunter-gatherer counterparts. So why did farming end up being the favoured lifestyle? He argues that there are four major factors to take into consideration when asking this question. These factors are the decline in availability of wild foods, the increased availability of domesticable wild plants, development of technology making farming more efficient and the rise in human population associated with farming (p.110, 111). Diamond states that this transition has been occurring over the past 10,000 years (p. 109); however, I would argue that it is still occurring.

Looking at his factors that have led to increased food production, I would say that all four factors are only escalating in importance. For example, with the extensive urbanization in today’s societies, there is very little availability of wild foods. In addition, our access to domesticable plants is easier than it’s ever been. A ten minute walk to the grocery store presents opportunities to obtain food from anywhere in the world. In addition, with new technology still developing to make food production even more efficient, we have the capacity to support an enormous human population size. Some people would even argue that without pesticides and GMO foods, we would not have enough food to support our growing population size. With only a small number of farms providing most of the food for the world, I would say that we live in one giant society built on extreme farming practices.

I think most people would say that humans have been so successful because of our intelligence. However, as Diamond argues, it was the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to farming societies that have led to the success of humankind, guns, germs and steel.

The Transition to Farming

Artificial Selection: People controlling plants or co-evolution?

Pollan, M. 2001. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Randon House Trade Paperbacks, New York, New York.

Micheal Pollan, discusses in his book, “The Botany of Desire,” traits that plants have evolved to satisfy the desires of humans. The four desires that Pollan chose to write on are, “sweetness, broadly defined, in the story of the apple; beauty in the tulip’s; intoxication in the story of cannabis; and control in the story of the potato” as seen on page xvii. The chapters of this book are split accordingly to these four desires. So far, I have only read the introduction titled, “The Human Bumblebee.”

Pollan is a very successful journalist, as told in his bibliography, and this becomes quite noticeable as he starts to tell his story. It is apparent he is a curious thinker and willing to explore new ideas. On page xv he asked himself, “Did I choose to plant these potatoes, or did the potatoes make me do it?” He continues through the introduction of this book to question who is really in control, the plants or the people? Although humans have played a major role in deciding which plants are successful and which ones are not, one could also argue that the plants that are most successful are so because they have evolved to satisfy humans. As he describes on page xxiii, “…in a world in which humankind has become the most powerful evolutionary force…” perhaps the most successful plants are so because of their ability to have evolved to meet human needs, not because humans have cultivated them to meet our needs. So who is in control?

I enjoyed Pollan’s ability to give importance to plants by making the reader believe that plants have been as aware of their evolutionary advances as humans are. For example, on page xix he says, “While we were nailing down consciousness and learning to walk on two feet, they were, by the same process of natural selection, inventing photosynthesis… and perfecting organic chemistry.” I really liked this sentence because it reminds us that plants are no less evolved or complex than us because they can’t think and walk. Plants can do amazing things that humans still cannot replicate in the lab with the efficiency that plants do. On page xv he writes about how the plants that are able to use animals’ desires are the ones that are able to multiply. Again, he is able to make the feel reader as if the plants are using the animals for their own benefit, not the other way around as it is most commonly believed.

So who is in control, the plants or the people? It depends who you ask. Of course humans are going to say that we are the ones that decide which plants thrive and which ones don’t, so we must be. However, Pollan provides the argument in his book that perhaps it is the plants that actually have the upper-hand on us.

Diamond, J. 1999. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, New York.

Diamond’s, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” is a non-fiction book that describes how (in Chapter 7: How to Make an Almond) agriculture and domestication of crops has affected human history.

The writing style between Diamond and Pollan is quite different. As I read Diamond’s book I felt no connection to him whatsoever, especially since I read this book right after reading Pollan’s book in which I felt like a person was talking to me. This contrasts to Diamond’s book to which I felt like I was reading to myself. This could be due to their differences in occupation. Pollan is a journalist whereas Diamond is a scientist specializing in the area of physiology. As a scientist, I personally know a lot of the writing is meant to be very factual and unbiased which is how I felt “Guns, Germs and Steel” was written. Although the writing is full of very interesting information, I found it more difficult to get into this book compared to “The Botany of Desire.”

For example, I noticed that in both books the chapter on artificial selection in Darwin’s book, “On the Origin of Species” was brought up. Pollan discusses artificial selection on page xxii as, “…the process by which domesticated species come into the world. Darwin using the word artificial not as in fake but as in artifact: a thing reflecting human will. There’s nothing fake about a hybrid rose or a butter pear…” Whereas Diamond discussing the same topic on page 130 sounds like, “His first chapter is instead a lengthy account of how our domesticated plants and animals arose through artificial selection by humans. Rather than discussing the Galapagos Island birds that we usually associate with him…” If I didn’t know which passage was written by a journalist and which was written by a scientist I think I would be able to make a pretty confident guess.

Although both books discussed very similar topics and even brought up the same chapter on artificial selection from Darwin’s book, Pollan’s writing was much more pleasurable to read. I found Diamond’s writing to be too factual and because of that I wasn’t able to connect with the same level of passion and enthusiasm on the topic as I was with Pollan’s book.

Artificial Selection: People controlling plants or co-evolution?

Triumph of Seeds

Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seed. Basic Books, New York, New York.

Thor Hanson discuses in his book, “The Triumph of Seeds,” both scientifically and historically how seeds have shaped the world. In his preface on page xxiii, he points out five reasons seeds have been so successful. These five reasons are the nourishment seeds provide the baby plant, the way seeds are able to unite in sexual reproduction, the seed’s ability to endure harsh environments, the ability for seeds to defend themselves and the seed’s capabiltiy to travel. This book is split accordingly to these five factors that have contributed to the success of seeds. I have so far read part of the preface as well as the section on “Seeds Unite.”

I found the short description on the front cover of this book, “how grains, nuts, kernals, pulses, and pips conquered the plant kindgom and shaped human history,” quite an enthusiastic and bold statement. However, as I began to read Hanson’s book, I began to realize that this was not an understatement. Hanson has a way of blending the right amount of science and storytelling to describe the impressive success of seeds and the intimate co-evolutionary relationship between humans and seeds. Although I anticipated this to be a boring topic, Hanson has a way of conveying his own enthusiam and passion about seeds onto the reader.

I enjoyed that the author was able to simplify certain concepts. For example, on page 68 when Thor describes how important the development of protection of the seed is, he says, “…there’s no doubt that wrapping those naked seeds refined the system and opened a range of new opportunities.. a towel is just the beginning… people can cover their nakedness with whatever they want: shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, a cocktail dress, or even a suit of armour.” In this paragraph he compares a naked human to the gymnosperm seed. However, the evolutionary transition to angiosperms which have a protected seed allowed for great innovations. A cocktail dress here could mean a delicous fruit that is designed to attract animals to the seed in the way a cocktail dress attracts the human eye. A suit of armour could be a very protective covering that allows the seed to withstand unfavourable conditions the way armour protects a vulnerbable human. As a biologist I can appreciate this simple comparison and I think even for someone without an education in botany, this concept can be understood with ease. For this reason, I admire that Hanson is able to write in a way that appeals to such a broad audience of readers.

I also like how Hanson was able to convince his audience of the importance of seeds to humans as well as the influence humans have had on seeds. For example, on page 75, he discusses how through selective breeding humans were able to generate many new species of plants such as cabbage, kale and broccoli. Humans also played a role in the pollination and transfer of seed. Through co-evolution, humans have become dependent on seeds for many aspects of everyday life and seeds have benefitted from humans planting seeds and creating new species of seed. As humans, we often like to think we dictate the rules of nature; however, Hanson points out the great dependence humans have on seeds and reminds us that we are a part of nature. Also, as he discusses the influence humans have had on seeds, I couldn’t help but think about the future of human’s influence on seeds. Already, companies have begun to patent seeds. I have even heard about companies trying to genetically modify seeds to only reproduce for one generation so that farmers are not able to reuse seeds. Humans and seeds have always had a postive, mutual relationship but is this relationship starting to become parasitic?

I believe the author was able to convey both the importance of seeds to us as well as the amazing innovations of seeds that have lead to their great success. Seeds may not seem like the most riviting topic to read about, but Hanson has a way of engaging the reader, a challenge that many biologists face when trying to spread their knowledge to the general population.

Triumph of Seeds

The 100 Mile Diet

J.B. MacKinnon, Smith, A. 2007. The 100 Mile Diet: a year of local eating. Vintage Canada, Toronto, Ontario.

This book describes the year long journey of Canadian couple, Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon, in their challenge to eat food grown only within 100 miles of their home in Vancouver. The chapters of the book correspond to the months of their challenge, starting in April. The chapters I have read start at April and end at the start of October.

In this book, the young couple decide to take on the 100 mile diet challenge after discovering that the average meal travels 1,500 miles from place of production to our plates. By eating only within 100 miles, our carbon footprint can be greatly reduced. However, as they soon discover, eating only within 100 miles means giving up a lot of their favourite necessities such as sugar, exotic fruits and most importantly, coffee. Throughout their journey, they meet many local food producers such as farmers, fisherman and bee-keepers. They also begin to see how connected nature is and since humans are a part of nature, we play a major role in the balance of life.

I really enjoyed how the authors of the 100 Mile Diet were able to make me think about issues that I had never contemplated before. Not only does this book discuss the carbon footprint associated with not eating locally but it also made me think about how much our food system has changed and how much less connected our modern society is with nature. These are two factors, which I believe, go hand in hand.

On page 54, James mentions the word traceability as a way of measuring how close one is from their food and that today, we have very little traceability of our food. I’ll admit, I was a little embarrassed when I began to look at the typical food I eat in a day and realized that I had no idea where this food came from. I’d like to think my food came from the little illustration of a farm on my bag of spinach, however, the harsh reality is that it probably came from a massive corporate owned farm and traveled more miles to my plate than I have travelled in the past year. I had no traceability of where my food came from yet this was something I had never questioned before.

Also on this page, James discusses how we have also lost the traceability of many aspects of our lives. For example, knowing which vegetables are in season and even knowing what kind of produce grows near your home is something I think a lot of people are lacking. On page 62, when Alisa and James pick up their Red Fife wheat and he describes “separating the wheat from the chaff,” I couldn’t picture what this looked like because I realized I had never seen wheat before nor did I know what part was used when making flour.

I think that the intentions for the 100 Mile Diet are really positive. Not only does it promote eating local but also encourages people to become more aware of where their food comes from. A part of knowing where your food comes means becoming more connected with nature. As I read this book I felt like I was alongside Alisa and James on their quest to become more connected with their food. As much as I wish I could follow Alisa and James’ path and eat only within 100 miles of my home, I don’t think this is something I would be able to do. However, I think the purpose of this book isn’t to convince people to join this diet but to make people think about where their food comes from. If this is the case, the authors did a good job because since reading this book I have started to take the time to look at the labels on my produce and wonder what kind of journey this food took to get to my plate.

The 100 Mile Diet