Friday, December 18, 2009

What I'm Reading...Final Thoughts on The Botany of Desire

Because I've included quotes in my posts about Michael Pollan's book, The Botany of Desire, it has turned out to be a monstrous 3-part post! I suppose that just shows my enthusiasm for Pollan's work.

In the final section of the book, Pollan focuses on monocultures vs. organic varietal farming while discussing the final plant, the potato. When discussing farmers who use pesticides, Pollan describes the process, showing how many chemicals are used:

“Typically it begins early in spring with a soil fumigant; to control nematodes and certain diseases in the soil, potato farmers douse their fields before planting with a chemical toxic enough to kill every trace of microbial life in the soil. Next Forsyth puts down a herbicide – Lexan, Sencor, or Eptam – to “clean” his field of all weeds. Then, at planting, a systemic insecticide – such as Thimet – is applied to the soil. This will be absorbed by the young seedlings and kill any insect that eats their leaves for several weeks. When the potato seedlings are six inches tall, a second herbicide is sprayed on the field to control weeds"(Page 218).

While literally out in the field doing research, Pollan encounters many farmers --some conventional, some organic. When talking to a conventional potato farmer named Danny Forsyth, he uncovers an honest confession that speaks volumes:

“I like to eat organic food, and in fact I grow a lot of it at the house. The vegetables we buy at the market we just wash and wash and wash. I’m not sure I should be saying this, but I always plant a small area of potatoes without any chemicals. By the end of the season, my field potatoes are fine to eat, but any potatoes I pulled today are probably still full of systemics. I don’t eat them"(Page 220).

Pollan then turns to the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and how they are changing the economic structure of agriculture:

“...genetic engineers have discovered how to stop on command the most elemental of nature’s processes, the plant-seed-plant-seed cycle by which plants reproduce and evolve. The ancient logic of the seed – to freely make more of itself and infinitum, to serve as both food and the means of making more food in the future – has yielded to the modern logic of capitalism. Now viable seeds will come not from plants but from corporations"(Page 232).

I will refrain from quoting any more sections of the book, simply because you should just pick it up and read it yourself. The potato chapter is especially the most eye-opening from an environmental, food-safety conscious perspective. However, before you get worried that Pollan's books are only full of political statements, he also provides the most beautiful descriptions of his natural surroundings. In the epilogue, he describes his garden with the passion and fluidity of a poet:

“I hadn’t been in the garden for a couple of weeks, and, as always is the case by the end of the summer, the place was an anarchy of rampant growth and ripe fruit, all of it threatening to burst the geometry of my beds and trellises and paths. The pole beans had climbed clear to the tops of the sunflowers, which stood draped in their bulging green and yellow pods. The pumpkins had trailed halfway across the now-unmowable lawn, and the squash leaves, big as pizzas, threw dark pools of shade in which the lettuces looked extremely happy – as, unfortunately, did the slugs, who were dining on my chard in the squashy shade. The vines of the last potatoes lay flopped over their hills, exhausted."

So, once again, Pollan delights my brain with all kinds of analysis relating to food, plants, and food culture, and I just can't get enough. I know I am behind on my Pollan reading, but next will be The Omnivore's Dilemma. For those of you who are more apt to read the "coles notes" version, he has just come out with a book called Food Rules -- it's a guidebook to eating real food, with one food rule per page, making it easier for all of us to implement his strategy into our daily lives.

*All photos via Flickr: geo3pea, photomato and Meredith James

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