A Wall of Potatoes

Pollan, M. 2001. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. Random House: New York

A wall of potatoes.

A wall of potatoes taller than your head, and stacked back farther than your eye can see.

A wall of blemished, dwarfed, discarded potatoes, taller than your head and farther than your eye can see; an avalanche waiting to happen.

This describes the sight I saw just one Saturday afternoon ago, at a small family-owned and operated potato farm in Kamloops, BC. Potatoes are not the crop you turn to if you want to make it rich. The potato is humble, cheap, yet as consumers we expect a certain caliber of potato; we want our potatoes to fit nicely in our hands, big enough to make it worth the effort to wash and cut them, and we want them to be uniform in colour, as free of spots and other imperfections as possible. Since perfection is not the way of nature, this means that farmers – at least at the farm I was visiting – have to chuck out approximately one third of their annual yield of potatoes to be broken up for use as animal feed; feeding us indirectly. Of the potatoes that make do their way to the grocery store, their prices are dictated directly by the supermarkets, and in this way potato farmers are at the mercy of what their “buyers” are willing to shell out. What matters is moving the product.

Knowing this, it is interesting to inquire what the history of potatoes has been for our ancestors. In the final chapter of The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan does just that. It was striking to me to learn that at one time those in Europe did not know of the potato, until it was brought back on ships from South America, largely as an afterthought. Unfortunately, the potato came to be viewed as uncivilized in comparison to wheat; even the peasants had to be convinced to plant it in their fields! Just over two hundred years ago, the introduction of the potato as a second staple crop for northern Europe was hotly debated. Its virtues, being easy to grow, cook and eat, were also seen as it’s downfalls: the potato became disentangled with the threat of overpopulation, a lack of control and security, a loss of progress and money, and anarchy. Pollan describes potatoes as being “chthonic”, or quite literally, as belonging to the underworld, “forming their undifferentiated brown tubers unseen beneath the ground, throwing a slovenly flop of vines above” (p. 200). In every sense of the word, potatoes were looked down upon.  But eventually, the potato allowed the peoples of Europe to become a much more powerful nation than they could have subsisting primarily on cereal grains.

A theme that emerges from this is that of impermanence, change, or progress – of societies and of the food that fuels those societies. It instills in me a sense that things we find so normal today (ie. eating potatoes, in any one of their many forms), were completely new to our ancestors not so long ago in history.

And this begs the question, where will our future lead us, in potatoes and other agricultural ventures? Pollan also explores this issue, by growing in his garden a crop of Monsanto-patented NewLeaf potatoes, genetically modified to produce a toxin that resists the Colorado potato beetle. He uses a plethora of figurative language to describe the GMO potatoes; for example, as “chimeras: “revolutionary” in the patent office and on the far, “nothing new” in the supermarket and the environment” (p. 189). He describes the growing of the potatoes as “not so much as planting vegetables as booting up a new software release” (p. 190). And, my personal favorite is his description of the potatoes as “alien beings”, as he then adds a twist to this comparison, saying: “that’s not quite right; they’re more like us than other plants because there’s more of us in them” (p. 198). This is an excellent example of the way Pollan is able to “tell it slant”, or distort the story he is telling in a way that forces you to look at it from an alternate viewpoint, one that is sometimes uncomfortable. He implies that by exerting our control over potatoes by means of bioengineering, we are essentially inserting more of ourselves, or our knowledge, in to them. We are creating a new relationship between us and the plants we subsist on, and simultaneously, between different species of plants, animals, and fungi in ways that nature has never previously allowed to happen. Although Monsanto markets these GMO seeds (and their resulting products) as benign, the message comes loud and clear: since no one has previously crossed in to this territory before, we just don’t know what the repercussions may be.

Who knows, maybe one day GMO-food will be a fact of life for my great-great-grandchildren, and they will cease to know or remember a time when things were different, much as I am unable to fully grasp a world without a large variety of vegetables, fruits and other food choices available to me at any time I desire them, in relatively unending supply.

The potato farmers that I had the opportunity of meeting myself made me question our society’s obsession with perfection and this “unending” supply, and the difficult position this puts farmers in. There is no room for the farmers to change their farming practices if we do not change our consuming practices. And more and more in the future, this idea will apply not only to techniques of food production, sorting and storage, but to the literal molecular structure of the seeds put in to the ground and the food put in to our mouths.

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Corn, Corn, Everywhere

Pollan, M. 2006. The omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. Penguin Books: New York.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma has ruined the grocery store for me.

OK, maybe it’s unfair to place all the blame on Michael Pollan. Let’s face it, even though I love cooking and preparing food, shopping for ingredients in the modern chain grocery store has never been the most peaceful experience. Stark, florescent lights, swarms of people playing bumper cars with their grocery carts, and row upon row of packaged goods wedged in beside one another; indeed, it feels like one of the farthest things from nature.

But now, I’ve become prone to seeing the majority of these grocery store goods as giant cobs of corn, protruding from the boxes and bags like beacons. So maybe it is more accurate to say that I see these goods as not much more than ground-up, processed kernels of corn, taking the form of corn starch, corn oil, modified corn syrup, or any other possible corn-based additive.

Just last week in the frozen food section I spotted a package of onion-flavoured hash-brown patties, the kind that only need to be crisped up in the toaster to be ready to eat. “Yum!” was my first reaction. I reached into the freezer and pulled out the box of perfect potato rectangles. Then it struck me: Corn. Look for corn. I slowly turned over the box and scanned the ingredient list. Ingredient number 3: Yellow corn flour. Suddenly they didn’t look so appealing…

Why was this suddenly so unappealing to me, when it was something I wouldn’t have thought twice about in the past? As Pollan says, we are “the true people of the corn”, or “corn chips with legs” (p. 23). Corn is something so prevalent in our diets as North Americans that it quite literally makes up a portion of our bodies. It is an inseparable part of who we are, and this is kind of frightening.

But it goes even further than this. Pollan has made me realize the very real and engrained consequences that corn has had for humans (biologically and socioeconomically), animals, and the Earth that we share.

When it comes to humans, one of the greatest revelations for me in reading this book was to learn about some of the people behind the scenes in the grand-scale corn takeover; namely, the people growing it. These farmers, like George Naylor, who Pollan comes to know well, live and work the fields of the Corn Belt of the Midwestern United States. They are producing more corn in a shorter period of time than has ever been produced in history, and yet they are simultaneously struggling to earn enough money to subsist. Frankly, this seems ridiculous to me, as well as greatly disheartening, and I think I can speak for a great number of us who have had no idea that this was even going on. It also leads to a never-ending cycle of cheap “commodity corn”, as farmers are propelled to find ways to produce even more corn (in order to live), leading to further overabundance of corn, and less money in the corn-growing business.

An image that struck me was that of the scattered corn Pollan observed at the grain elevator in Farnhamville, Iowa: “golden kernels everywhere, ground in to the mud by tires and boots, floating in the puddles of rainwater, pancaked on the steel rails… less a food than an industrial raw material” (p. 59). And so, Pollan goes on to explain, that is exactly what “number 2 field corn” is.

What led to corn as a commodity? In a word: petroleum. The sun as an energy source wasn’t enough for us, or rather, it wasn’t enough for a rapidly growing industry, and so “humanity began to sip petroleum” (p. 45). Pollan quotes farmer activist Vandana Shiva as saying, “We’re still eating the leftovers of World War II” (p. 41).

Yuck.

With this overabundance of corn there is a need to find something to do with it; one of the ways it is used is to create the corn derivatives that show up in our packaged grocery goods, as described earlier, and another way is to use it to grow animal protein on the modern feedlot, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO).

In this way, even the meat and dairy aisles are not free from the lurking reminder of corn; the corn that once filled the bellies of pigs, chickens and cattle, plumping them up and marbling their meat. I have to say that, as a vegetarian who is primarily fueled by disagreement with the factory farming industry, I thought I knew a thing or two about the making of meat as in our society, but Pollan was able to horrify me once again with the absurdity of it all. Essentially, CAFOs take cattle, “exquisitely adapted by natural selection to live grass…[and adapt them] to live on corn, for no other reason than it offers the cheapest calories around and because the great pile must be consumed” (p. 68). Pollan describes the feedlot itself as a “premodern city”, full of crowding, poor hygiene, death and disease. The sad part is, so much of this could be avoided if only these animals were allowed to live and eat how nature intended. But industry is not concerned with this.

I find Pollan’s writing impactful because he makes it personal. He makes it about us, as human beings, and he ties in characters that make the more “science-y” stuff he talks about have high stakes. For example, he gives corn farming a name and a personality with George Naylor, and he gives the feedlot a face with the brockle-faced steer he invests in and follows through his short life, 534. Suddenly, everything he is discussing can be seen as having real life consequences; something to care about.