But first, coffee

Hanson, T. 2015. The Triumph of Seed. Basic Books, New York, New York. P143-160.

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“I can’t even imagine being addicted to something,” I said to my friend, Pat, as we waited in my car to board the ferry to Victoria. We were having a serious conversation about drug addictions.

“Yes, it’s hard to imagine what it would feel like to wake up every morning and the first thing on your mind is getting high,” Pat commented back. The conversation changed directions and we boarded the ferry. After our long day of driving, we finally had landed in Victoria.

“I REALLY need a coffee right now, I’m stopping at the first Tim Hortons I see,” I told Pat.

“Me too. I haven’t had a cup since this morning.” There was a brief pause before Pat then said, “you know what I just realized?” I asked him to go on. “You know how we said we couldn’t relate to drug addicts? Well we are addicts. We’re addicted to coffee.”

So naturally I chose the chapter on coffee of Hanson’s, “Triumph of the Seeds,” to blog about this week. The chapter discusses the history of coffee, the science of caffeine and how coffee has shaped society. I like the examples he uses to emphasize the points in his writing, as well as his subtle comparisons between coffee and alcohol which suggest the historic transition from alcohol to coffee had a major impact on society.

For example, when discussing the evolution of caffeine, Hanson discusses recent research that shows caffeine present in flower nectar may serve the purpose to trigger reward pathways in honeybees (pg. 148). This would function to keep the bees coming back to pollinate the flowers because, in a sense, they are addicted to the caffeine. I found this to be an extremely fascinating adaption for the plant. Hanson could’ve stuck to just talking about the insecticide properties of caffeine, but adding this recent research is what interested me to continue reading.

I found his aside on, the “Breakfast of Champions,” to be very funny. I felt like this wasn’t necessary information but it added some comedy to his writing. The thought of, “steaming-hot ale poured over bread or mush, with eggs, butter, cheese or sugar added on special occasions,” sounds more like a dare than a typical breakfast (pg. 151). Thanks, but I think I’ll stick with my morning cup of coffee.

Another part I enjoy about this chapter is when Hanson contrasts the conversations ones has over coffee compared to the conversations one has over beer (pg. 153). “To philosophers, writers, and other intellectuals, coffeehouses quickly became indispensable hubs for articulating and sharing ideas (pg. 153).” Even today, business and formal meetings happen at Starbucks. Ideas are shared over alcohol too but they tend not to be “good ideas.”

I also like that he brought up the point that with, “The Internet, texting, social media, and other digital innovations have created longer workdays and an expectation of constant connectivity, a perfect environment for the stimulating effects of coffee (pg. 155)”. It is very true that in today’s society there is a constant need to always be doing something and to be connected with people. This can be very energetically draining and it seems that for most people, coffee is the only way to make it through the day. As my friend Pat would say, “coffee doesn’t give me energy, it makes me not too tired to be myself.” Coffee has been integrated into our society so well we forget what it truly is. It is a secondary metabolite produced by plants that has evolved as a natural insecticide and addictive substance to make sure honeybees come back to pollinate. From a human perspective however, it is a delicious beverage that can be enjoyed with business partners, friends, family or alone. Whether or not we like to admit it, it is also something we simply cannot live without (seriously though, take a second and imagine a world without caffeine…).

But first, coffee

How do you like them apples?

Pollan, M. 2001. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Randon House Trade Paperbacks, New York, New York. P3-58, 183-238.

This week’s reading was “Chapter 1 Desire: Sweetness/ Plant: The Apple” and “Chapter 4 Desire: Control/ Plant: The Potato” from Pollan’s, “The Botany of Desire.” As mentioned on a previous blog post, Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire” discusses four desires that plants prey on humans for. The desires covered this week were sweetness and control.

As usual, Pollan is able to give character to the plants in question. He provides in both chapters a history of the apple and potato and how they have influenced humans over the years. Again, we see the apple and potato showing up in important colonization events, federal policy making and modern day advances. He reminds us that the relationship between plants and people is mutual. On page 5 he says, “We give ourselves altogether too much credit in our dealings with other species… It takes two to perform that particular dance, after all, and plenty of plants and animals have elected to sit out.” What Pollan means here is that all plants that have been domesticated by humans were chosen by humans but the plants also had to “choose” to be domesticated by people.

What I found interesting about Chapter 1, was how much religion and government were involved in altering the history of the apple. Pollan states that as John Chapman’s (a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed) apple orchards spread across America, religious groups got involved because in that day and time, apples were used primarily for making cider. On page 22 Pollan mentions the popular slogan, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” (a saying I’ll admit I think to myself every time I eat an apple) is the product of a marketing strategy to change the reputation of apples as an alcoholic beverage to apples as a nutritious food. I also find it funny how the image of Johnny Appleseed has changed so much. Bill describes Chapman’s best characteristics on as, “his philanthropy, his selflessness, his Christian faith… was also America’s first environmentalist” (p.24). However, the image Pollan describes of Chapman is of a crazy man with a child bride. Certainly not the role model Bill had described.

I enjoyed reading Chapter 4 much more than Chapter 1. This was the chapter on control. I liked this chapter because Pollan raised a lot of questions on the ethics of genetically modified (GM) crops. Pollan has argued in all of his books that the relationship between plants and people is mutual and that the plants are as much in control as humans are. However, in the case of GM seeds, it appears Pollan may be wrong. It is true that through artificial selection humans have been modifying the characteristics of crops throughout history but have humans taken it too far? “Now the once irreducible wilderness of these plants has been… reduced” (p.196). By directly altering the genome of these plants we are taking away their potential to evolve. It seems to me that these scientists feel as if they can do a better job than nature so they have removed Her from the picture.

Although it now seems like humans have finally found a way to take complete control over plants, I would argue that this isn’t the case. Human’s will never be able to completely control nature. For example, GM crops that produce insecticide will eventually produce insecticide resistant bugs which will render these GM crops worthless. Monsanto claims that once this occurs a new and improved pesticide will solve the problem but how many times will this have to happen until the new pesticide doesn’t work? The lack of research on GM crops and mis-placed trust we put into Monsanto is very concerning for me. The human desire to control nature might just be our greatest weakness as humans. As the famous Dr. Ian Malcolm would say, “life finds a way.”

How do you like them apples?