Do you know what you’re eating?

Pollan M. 2002. The Botany of Desire. Random House. Toronto, Canada. 183-238 p.

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I love potatoes. Whether they are mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, potato chips, potato salad, or potato fries. GMO potatoes on the other hand? Not so much.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading chapter 4 of Micheal Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire”. This chapter focuses on a humans desire to control the world through the history of the potato. I like this chapter because Pollan raises a lot of questions about genetically modified (GM) potatoes and GM crops in general. GM crops have allowed us to take control over the genetics of other organisms, an ability that was once the job of natural selection. We have officially changed the course of the natural world through agriculture because “for the first time the genome itself is being domesticated” (p 197). A lot of questions have been raised about GM crops with very little answers. What if these GM crops really do harm the human population?

Pollan begins the chapter by talking about his own experiment planting Monsanto’s NewLeaf GM potatoes in his garden. This is where his questions and skepticisms about GM crops first come to light. He even states, “ I wasn’t sure I really wanted the NewLeaf potatoes I’d be digging at the end of the season” (p 187). Pollan was planting the NewLeafs because he was curious. It is very important to ask questions about what you eat. Pollan’s curiosity has led him on a journey to understand the history of potatoes and GM crops, as well as the technologies and politics surrounding them. His curiosity and question are what enticed me to read on.

I find it surprising that “fifty million acres of American farmland” (p 188) has been planted with GM crops and most people do not know. Many people never question the food they eat and Monsanto is not required to label their GM crops, which they don’t for obvious reasons. Would you choose to eat a GM potato over an organically grown one? Probably not.

Pollan’s curiosity takes him to Monsanto’s headquarters to talk to Dave Starck, one of Monsanto’s senior potato people (my goodness, what a title to have). Here, he learns more about their operations and the technology behind GM crops. Pollan discovers a sticking statistic that gene transfer only takes place 10-90% of the time to produce GM crops (P 209). Furthermore, Pollan unveils the uncertainty of the whole process because “this technology is at the same time both astoundingly sophisticated and yet still a shot in the genetic dark” (p 208). According to their staff, even Monsanto has no idea how safe their crops are or what effect they are having on the environment (p 209).

It was very interesting to see how farmers view GM crops. Pollan introduces us the point of view of both an organic farmer and a chemical farmer. As you can probably guess, these opposing agricultural practices also have opposing view about GM crops. Organic farmers do not believe in using insecticides and herbicides to begin with so why would they use a GM crop with insecticides in its genes? One organic farmer says, “if there is a source of evil in agriculture, its name is Monsanto” (p 221). Chemical farmer have a completely opposite view. Due to the extensive amounts of poisons (insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides) they spay on their crops, chemical farmers view Monsanto’s NewLeaf potatoes as a blessing. They do not have to spray as many chemicals on their crops, which allows them to save money. These farmers may have a point. If Monsanto’s NewLeaf potatoes can reduce the amount of poisonous chemicals sprayed on the fields, then this will also reduce the amount of poison entering the environment. Chemical leaching is a problem that has it’s own drastic consequences.

The most disturbing part about Pollans book was learning that Monsanto’s NewLeaf potatoes are not technically considered food. WHAT? I knew that McDonald’s uses this potato, but how can you sit there and enjoy your golden fries when they aren’t even food? These potatoes are a pesticide. This has officially turned me off from eating them. Apparently this has also changed Pollan’s mind about his NewLeaf potatoes because he did not eat the ones he grew.

What surprises me most is many people do not know about GM crops at all. There is a lot of information available for you to make educated decision for yourself. I believe that there are still to many unanswered questions to believe that these plants are safe. Monsanto, on the other hand, believes that there are too many unanswered questions to believe the GM crops are unsafe.

Has our desire to control the world around us sent us on a slippery slope of no return? I hope not.


The industrial eater: a walking stalk of processed corn.

Pollan, M.  2006.  The Ominivore’s Dilemma. Penguin Group, United States of America. Pg 15-119.

cover image from:

You are what you eat. Based on Pollan’s book the “Omnivores Dilemma”, this means we are corn, more specifically processed corn. We begin reading this book with a look at the supermarket. You can walk into any supermarket and see so much food, so much diversity in the store. Pollan reminds us that naturalists regard diversity as a measure of ecosystem health. I do not think that is true in this case because a supermarket is a measure of agriculture, which has caused the destruction of natural ecosystems around the world. As you look around the store a daily question comes to mind: What should I eat? Pollan changes this question to “What am I eating?” (p. 17). It’s scary that many people (myself included) do not know what is in the food we eat because we eat so much processed food. The truth is, the food we eat is derived from corn. Corn is in everything from the food we eat to what feeds our food and what fuels food production. This plant has colonized the world with the help of people through agriculture. Pollan takes us through the history of corn and how it has changed the world.

Pollan starts with the farmers. We are introduced to the life of a farmer named George Naylor. It is interesting to get a look into the life of the people that feed the world by growing corn. It is sad that these farmers support and feed strangers, but cannot afford to feed themselves (p 34). They are going broke by growing so much corn, but still measure their success by how much they can produce. This shows the consequences that a lack of knowledge can have on the lives of people. It is also interesting to hear Naylor’s opinion on GMO crops (p. 36). He does not trust tampering with billions of years of evolution. Maybe we should trust his gut feeling because he has spent his whole life growing corn. I would hate to see a lack of knowledge for GMO crops to have serious and irreversible consequences on the human population.

Corn has slowly taken over the world by displacing other species. This is done by clearing natural landscapes for agriculture and by replacing the usefulness of other species on the farm. This could not be done without the help of people. People clear the landscape and plant the corn. People have helped further by supplementing corn with synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. The invention of synthetic fertilizer has allowed the earth to support the enormous human population without limitations from the natural environment. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer has changed the world’s biology because we are no longer relying on the environment to get food. We now convert petroleum and fossil fuels into food and provided the world with a surplus of nitrogen. This method of feeding the world is economically cheap, but environmentally costly. It’s sad how the world works

Pollan moves on from farming by taking us on the journey that number 2 field corn takes before it enters our stomach as either meat or processed food. I did not know that there were different varieties of corn for different uses, but it only makes sense. Instead of following the path of corn we follow one steer, #534, from the farm he was born. I can relate to the young steer at this stage because I have held a newborn calf on a range here in Kamloops (Figure 1). It is sad to hear that beyond this point, #534’s (or Arthur’s) live is devalued to feed the growing human population. You will never question a vegetarian’s choice after reading this chapter. The steer, #534, will live its life in its own waste, being forcefully fed corn, drugs, supplements, and antibiotics. Then, to top it off its life is cut short to be serves to us on a plate. I agree with Pollan, “eating industrial meat tales almost a heroic act of not knowing or, now, forgetting” (p. 84).

Figure 1. A newborn steer named Arthur. Born on a local ranch.

Pollan then takes us through the processing plant where corn becomes unrecognizable to become many of the compounds in our food. By the end of the process, “[t]here’s no corn left” (p. 90). It is funny how we strip all of the goodness out of corn then supplement the lost nutrients because our food “has less to do with nutrition or taste than with economics” (p. 93).

The human population has learned to eat processed, industrial foods and at the same time is ingesting more calories at higher densities. This problem has lead to today’s world epidemic, which is obesity. Obesity is a problem faced all around the world. Some people are starving while others are ingesting an access of calories.

I enjoyed reading Pollan’s book. He clearly put a lot of research into investigating the history of corn. I can say after reading this book, however, that I am no longer hungry.