Review of The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
Rating **** 1/2
I first heard of this book from a friend who recommended it. It was described to me as an interesting book about flowers and plants. I can barely keep a potted plant alive, so this wasn't a book that went to the top of my must read list. Then I read the book The Omnivore's Dilemma also by Michael Pollan. That book is about the industrialization of food. I found that book so informative and well written that I decided to give his earlier book a try. I'm glad I did.
This is a book about four domesticated plants and how human intervention has shaped these plants into what they are today. The four plants are: the apple, the tulip, marijuana, and the potato. Now that might not sound like the most thrilling of topics, but Michael Pollan is a talented writer and he picked each of these plants because of the interesting stories associated with them. Together they serve as an example of how both the plants and humans have benefited from our intervention.
The book begins with the apple and the story of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed. Chapman was an enterprising young man responsible for hundreds of apple orchards during the early days of the westward expansion. The surprising thing was that the apples that resulted from the seeds he sold to the early settlers were not suitable for eating due to their bitter taste. They were instead used to make apple cider and alcohol. It wasn't until someone developed the technique of grafting, a form of plant cross breeding, that the apple gained popularity as a food.
Next we get the story of the tulip and how it led to the tulip mania in Holland and the eventual downfall of one Turkish Sultan. The tulip mania story is especially interesting because it mirrors similar manias in recent times such as the Internet tech bubble and the current housing crisis.
When Pollan talks about cannabis and marijuana the stories take on a decidedly more personal tone. He talks about his early experiments as both a grower and user of marijuana. He also talks in length about how our government has gone too far in its efforts to criminalize marijuana and the people who use it.
The last section of the book is dedicated to the potato. Pollan covers the famine in Ireland that was largely the result of the total loss of the potato crop. But he also talks about a new type of genetically engineered potato – the NewLeaf potato by Monsanto. This particular potato has been genetically altered with a gene that makes its leaves toxic to a certain type of beetle, thus eliminating, or at least reducing, the amount of pesticides needed to grow a crop. I found this section to be particularly interesting, though my wife may disagree. I happened to be reading this section during a two hour drive and couldn't help but share with her some of the more interesting details I picked up about potato farming. Take for example the fact that most farmers who grow potatoes for market won't eat their own potatoes for fear of the many chemicals that are used to grow the crop. And while the Newleaf potato goes a long way in reducing those chemicals, Monsanto has been forced to abandon them because of the unsubstantiated fears of the public concerning genetically altered food. He makes the valid point that what Monsanto has done in the lab is not that different than what botanists have done for centuries when they crossbreed plants through grafting and other means.
Anyone interested in the growing panoply of books and films about food and the environment will find this book of interest. It's well worth your time.