Pollan M. 2002. The Botany of Desire. Random House. Toronto, Canada. 183-238 p.
Potatoes. The “Pomme du terre” in French: the apples of the earth. Each rustic, brown spud a reminder of our connection to the soil and our link to nature.
Or is it?
Pollan’s chapter on Desire: Control Plant: the Potato outlines a story quite contrary to that of the humble gardener toiling away at the soil and unearthing brown starchy gems from the earth. The potato is a symbol of stability in that view, something we can rely on, something grounded and wholesome. But no. In the reading, Pollan describes potatoes as the last dying breath of the world of nature. Mankind, in its self-centred battle with the world, finally breached one of the final bastions of nature: genetic information. No longer is a species defended by its own book of genetic diversity and species identity. With powerful tools, mankind can now tear our pages from “The Book of Bacteria” and haphazardly paste them into “The Pages of the Potato”, creating novel and questionable hybrid species to sate our desires for power over nature. Pollan states that in the previous chaptes of the book, plants and humans worked in concert with the plants as the eternal protagonists. In each section, plants would duel with humanity, using their handful of genetic tools to maneuver and sway the wants and needs of humanity while people battled the diversity with hoe and sickle. The advent of the aforementioned tools drew the power away from the plants, killed our protagonists. Humans now had the tools to change, to modify, and to select the traits they wanted in their green phytobionts.
The author tactfully draws the reader to these conclusions using a variety of tools. Thoughout the narrative, Pollan constantly contrasts his little “garden experiments” with the broader ecological and agricultural aspects of the section. This simple trick allows the reader to really grasp the ideas on a relateable level; by adding some simple commentary describing his NewLeaf and heirloom varieties of his potato garden, Pollan alludes to the fact that the NewLeaf potatoes are foreign aliens in a garden of more “natural” organisms. His use of interesting terminology and metaphor brings to light the stark contrast between perceptions of potatoes as a whole in society, “Wheat pointed up, to sun and civilization; the potato pointed down. potatoes were chthonic, forming their undifferenitated tubers unseen beneath the ground” (Pollan 200). Stark imagery was used here, and unique vernacular that really added to the section. Chthonic was a word I had never heard before. Based on the “Chth” portion of the phrase, I assumed it related to Chthuhlu – the Lovecraftian abomination ruling the Place between Places. The simple addition of that word really added to the statement, creating a strong contrast between the sunlit and godly Wheat plant and the dark and grotesque potato.
The reading proceeds forward: following the trials of the NewLeaf potato. From modification to cultivation to pesticide use, Pollan vividly describes each section in detail, and relates each larger concept back to his little garden…and to his dinner plate. Conventional agriculture (monoculture and pesticide use) cause a host of problems both ecologically and medically. The improper use of pesticides and fertilizers destroys soils, poisons waterways, and has the potential to impact human health as well. Should we worry if the foods we eat contain the pesticides that they use to decimate insects and other plants? If they have such adverse effects on other eukaryotic organisms, could they not have the potential to damage our own cells?
So there you have it. The potato, once a simple rhizome resting peacefully in the soil. Now reborn as a human food product. Packaged, patented and prepared each day like the clothes you wear or the phones we use. Should we be meddling with nature like this?