Do you know what you’re eating?

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

Cover photo from:

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.


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