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.