Pollan, M. The botany of desire: A plant’s-eye view of the world. 2002. Toronto (ON). Random House Trade Paperbacks. p. 183-238.
In Chapter 4 of Botany of Desire, Pollan talks about the potato and how it represents our desire for control over nature. Our control of the potato has extended as far back in human history as Ireland in the sixteenth century. Today we still desire this control as shown with our use of the NewLeaf potato, a GMO from Monsanto. Pollan walks us through the history of the potato from its genetically diverse history in the Andes to the now uniform cultivation in the farms of Idaho.
The potato was cultivated in the Andes Mountains by the Inca people. Their form of cultivation is much different then what any modern North American would envision and this was out of necessity. Due to the vastly different climates of the Andes, genetic diversity was favoured. As Pollan says, “No monoculture could succeed under such circumstances so the Incas developed a method of farming that is monoculture’s exact opposite… the Incas developed a different spud for every environment” (p. 193). These agricultural conditions produced an explosion of variability that made the potato the resilient crop that would later become the staple for Ireland in the sixteenth century. After reading about the Inca cultivation system, and knowing some other amazing feats the Inca people accomplished, I can not help but wonder if they were a civilization that understood more than we currently do.
When the potato was first introduced to Europe it was not a popular crop. There were many reasons for this, one of them being that it was not held as a prestigious food (p. 199). The Irish however, out of necessity, took the potato and fed a nation. The Irish were a starved country due to English rule and because cereals grew so poorly in the area (p. 199). But due to the resiliency that was established in the Andes, the potato grew and grew well in Ireland. Add to the fact that the potato was nearly a nutritionally complete food and Ireland was starved no more (p. 203).
Although Ireland could now feed itself, the potato now made them quite poor. This new miracle crop led to a population doubling in a very short time. This large population jump drove wages down and because the potato never became a commodity the Irish were never subject to rising potato prices allowing the population to still grow. “The potato fed the Irish, it also impoverished them… the bounty of the potato was its curse” (p. 203). When the food security rug was pulled out from under them in the form of the Irish Potato Famine, millions would die.
The Irish believed that they had control over nature. They established a monoculture based on the Lumper potato that yielded high crops and fed many. This control was only an illusion though, as the microbe Phytophtora infestans would show.
Pollan then takes us to modern day, where our desire to control the potato has only grown. Similar to Ireland, Idaho has developed its own monoculture with the Russet Burbank potato. The instability of the Russet seems eerily similar to Ireland as well. Farmers in Idaho are either putting huge amounts of fertilizer on their lawns creating a near sterile environment only meant for the Russet potato to grow or to grow the genetically modified NewLeaf potato (p. 221). Neither of these choices appear to be sustainable practices as they both lead down the inevitable path of these pests gaining resistance.
The reader is then shown, a different paradigm. Organic farming. When I was reading about organic farming I couldn’t help but think of the similarities it shared with the Incas. The organic farmer that we are introduced to is Mike Heath. Heath grows a wide diversity of potato types, allowing a bad year with one variety to be offset by a good year another variety has (p. 223). He also uses alternative pest control practices such as planting wheat to “confuse” the beetles and using a crop rotation so crop- specific pests don’t build up (p. 222).
It that history is now repeating itself. Our desire for a quality controlled product has driven us back into a monoculture, which has already been shown to be unsustainable. Our lone hope is the organic farming movement that is underway.