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.”