Sunday, 5 August 2012

Vegetable Spirits

 In "The Botany of Desire", Michael Pollan breaks down how four plants, apple, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes, have shaped and manipulated Humanity in profound ways.  In each case, we find a bivalent relationship between man and plant, showering it in praise when times are good, and condemning it when times are bad.  But in each case, bad times are the result of human overindulgence. 

Apples: apples, hailing from Kazakhstan, are normally bitter when planted straight from seed.  Only a select few of the apples might be sweet, and these have to be cloned, as they have been for hundreds of years now.  Bitter apples, however, are perfect for making cider, and hence the primary use of apples in America before the last century was as booze

Tulips: Tulips are prized, obviously for their beauty.  In the seventeenth century, tulips made a huge splash among the Dutch, driving them into what is now known as Tulip Mania.  The price of a single tulip could be as high as that of a coastal estate, or what might now be $10-15 million.  The most beautiful tulips were those with wild colorful designs on their leaves.  Such heady designs were caused, unbeknownst to the Dutch, by viruses.

Cannabis: The cannabis plant is perhaps the most pampered plant on the planet.  Though it is technically a weed, the oily resin produced by females to catch male pollen contains high concentrations of a psychoactive compound, THC, which modulates human consciousness in a (usually) desireable manner, rendering this weed highly desirable.  The plant also has a variety of medicinal effects.  By growing females only, growers put the plants into a state of sexual frustration, a whole group of sexy ladies clothed in dark greens and purples and flickers of red looking hot for a lay and finding none, causing them, in effect, to layer up in more and more sticky jewelery, those cannabinoid dense jewels that glisten on the surface of their buds.

In the late 1980s, it was discovered that there exists a receptor system in the brain that binds THC.  It was later found that there are other molecules, made by the body, that bind to these receptors.  One of these, called anandamide (taken from the Sanskrit 'ananda' = 'bliss'), is a crucial molecule in brain cell communication and has been found to play a major role in the art of updating memory - in some sense, the art of forgetting.  Sound familiar?

Potatoes: Originally cultivated in the Andes by the Inca, potatoes changed the course of history in numerous ways when they were brought to Europe.  On the one hand, they provided a dense bundle of calories that could grow in the harsher conditions of northern Europe, eradicating periodic famines that were known to occur.  On the other hand, countries like Ireland, for example, became so reliant on potatoes that they would practice mono culture, ie. growing only one crop.  So when a ship shows up one evening in the early nineteenth century with a bug that Ireland had never seen before, the country's potato stock got wiped out in a few days.  And since they were growing nothing else, they went very, very hungry

In the modern age, a similar mono-culture excersice exists with regards to potatoes (as well as many other crops, unfortunatley).  McDonalds, an enormous potato buyer, is interested in only one type of potato, the Russet Burbank.  This lone variety is monocropped consistently across the continent, often obliging the use of heavy pesticide coverage.

Farmers who choose biodiversity and organic farming practices can grow a variety of different potato types and employ natural methods to protect plants (like ladybugs).  Since they don't have to spend millions on chemical pesticides and since they can fetch higher prices for the quality of their products in the market, organic farmers are more and more able to keep up economically with their more chemically inclined competitors.

Hats off to you, organic farmer.

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