The Notional Potato

Pollan, M. 2002. Desire: Control / Plant: The Potato. pg. 181-238 in The Botany of Desire. Random House, Inc., New York, New York.

“Tell me what you eat,” Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously claimed and “I will tell you what you are” (pg.195). This statement emphasizes the connection between plants and people and dawns the question, what type of people are we today?

The theme of this reading is overwhelmingly that of control; the human attempt to control nature. As Pollan masterly illustrates throughout this reading we have become a people focused on an “ordered earth” (pg.184), and monoculture is the greatest testament to our controlling-type mentality. The consequences of our need to control nature have been revolutionary and disastrous, the end result being a precarious food production system that is unsustainable both to the land it grows on and the people that consume it.

This is not the only way though! Pollan gives two accounts of the different relationships people have had with their food. The Irish system – modeled much like today’s monoculture system and the Incas system — the polar opposite of monoculture. The Incan’s residing in the Andes, live “under the most inauspicious conditions” (pg.192) — as far as agriculture is concerned. Quite simply monoculture could never succeed in their environment, “So the Incas developed a method of farming that is monoculture’s exact opposite. Instead of betting the farm on a single cultivar, the Andean farmer, then as now, made a great many bets, at least one for every ecological niche. Instead of attempting, as most farmers do, to change the environment to suit a single optimal spud — the Russet Burbank, say— the Incas developed a different spud for every environment” (pg.193). This gave them a great variety, which could easily withstand shocks to the system, such as a disease in one potato or a bad year in another, the Andes system “can withstand virtually anything nature is apt to throw at it” (pg.193). Now lets turn to the Irish system. Advocating monoculture wholeheartedly, they only grew one variety of the potato species — so like modern monoculture their crops were susceptible to shocks — and one shock was disastrous indeed — “Phytophthora infestans arrived [and] within weeks the spores of this savage fungus, borne on the wind, overspread [Ireland], dooming potatoes and potato eater alike” (pg.206). The Irish thought they were in control, but much like today’s monoculture system this control was shown to be an illusion.

In the newest attempt of control, monoculture has turned to Genetically Modified Crops. One cannot say these crops are good or bad because they are shrouded in uncertainty. And this is the second underlining theme in this reading — uncertainty. Yes, these crops may herald the end of pesticides, herbicides and all the others goodies in modern monoculture, but the bigger question is what they themselves will herald.

Maybe rather than redesigning the crop, we should redesign the food system.


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