Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Book Review: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

Something you may not know about me (even if you are a long time reader) is that I am fascinated by gardening. If I had the time, I would absolutely have my own garden that not only contained food, but also herbs and medicinals. The last year World Book Night was still a thing (too bad it's gone now), I was looking at the list of titles to choose from and was struck by The Botany of Desire. I'd never heard of it before, but it's certainly an intriguing title. I've had the book on my list to read ever since, but only recently picked it up to read.

In The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan deconstructs the relationships between plants and humans. As humans we think that we have controlled plants to make them become what we wanted them to be, when it could just as truthfully be said that it's really the plants that have controlled us, using us like bees to transport their genes around the world and through the generations. He says that plants have learned to attract us by appealing to our natural desires and examines 4 specific plants to illustrate 4 specific desires we have: apples (sweetness), tulips (beauty), marijuana (intoxication), and potatoes (control). In each section of the book, Pollan gives a history of the plant in question and then shows how it appeals to our desires. Interesting tidbits such as the true reason Johnny Appleseed is a national folk hero (no one ate apples back then because they were too sour, they were only used to make hard cider, meaning that John Chapman made alcohol possible for the new settlers as they moved west through the country), how the war on drugs brought about the perfection of pot growing in Amsterdam, and how at one time tulips were more valuable than gold in Holland. I particularly found the final section interesting - potatoes and our desire to control. Pollan investigates and grows some genetically altered potatoes, visiting large scale potato farms in Idaho that use them and examining the consequences. This book came out back when the big GMO controversy first came into the public light (I'm not sure, but this book may have helped that whole event come to think of it), and Monsanto had developed potatoes that contain a common natural fertilizer in their genes, killing off the potato beetle with a single bite. The potatoes were specifically developed and bred for operations like McDonald's because no one wants black spots in their French fries. Pollan also talks about the dangers of mono-culture in plants, explaining what really happened during the great Irish potato famine that wiped out 1 million people.

I really loved this book. Not only was it educational and eye-opening, it was also very entertaining. Some of the stories are just that (stories), but Pollan keeps a good balance between interesting facts and things that we really should know about because the effect our health and daily lives. Back in high school I did a science project on genetically altered corn, so genetic modification has always interested me. After all the things Pollan learns about these particular potatoes and how little research has been done on what the effect of such modifications is on the human body (the FDA doesn't even classify these potatoes as a "food" since they contain a pesticide, so they say it isn't their job to test them), plus the fact that several of the large scale growers that he interviews don't even eat the potatoes they grow and have their own private organic back yard gardens to feed their families from, Pollan just can't bring himself to eat the potatoes nor feed them to anyone else without letting them know what they will be ingesting. It's definitely an interesting ethical question that we owe it to ourselves and future generations to look into more than we do. Even if you aren't a gardener, I promise this book will be able to hold your interest. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

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