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The Botany Of Control Essay

1835 words - 8 pages

It is natural to perceive the relationship between people and domesticated plants as one-sided, with humans, the subject, freely imposing its will upon plants, the object. Observers will point to the historical progress of technological innovations in agriculture that offer seemingly greater mastery over our plant counterparts and suggest that humans largely control domesticated plants; today, man seems free to choose what plants to grow whenever he pleases and wherever he wants. In Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, this notion of human control over plants is directly challenged. Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire explores the relationship between human desires and four plants, apples, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes, based on the premise that that they reveal a larger reciprocal relationship between the human and natural world. With respect to the potato, Pollan explores how the human desire of control has impacted the past and present-day attempts at domesticating plants, and what the future may hold. In particular, by evaluating the principles of polyculture versus monoculture and investigating the effectiveness of genetic engineering of plants, Pollan calls into question how much control humans own over plants. Pollan’s commentaries of past and present day efforts by man in cultivating the potato reveal his intention of advocating readers to work together with nature rather than against it because his accounts of the Irish experience with the Russet Burbank potato in the 17th century and present-day corporation Monsanto’s attempts to produce genetically modified potatoes challenge the efficacy of human attempts to control plants.
First, Pollan highlights starkly contrasting experiences between two respective 17th century societies that both heavily engaged in potato horticulture: the Incas and the Irish. Though perhaps today potatoes are commonly assumed to own European roots, they actually originate from South America, in particular Peru; as early as 8,000 years ago, the Incas raised a strikingly diverse variety of potato breeds in the heights of the Andes Mountains, a “cornucopia of reds, blues, yellows, and oranges” (192). As Pollan vividly recounts, the Incas cultivated different breeds of potatoes to suit each individually unique environment within the Andes to simultaneously plant a wide variety of several crops. Pollan juxtaposes the Incas, who gladly embrace a principle of polyculture, with another society reliant upon the potato crop, the Irish. As a result of a chance shipwreck of a Spanish galleon off the Irish coastline in 1588, as Pollan recounts, the potato suddenly became introduced to a new biological and cultural environment perfectly suited to the plant. After brief experimentation, the Irish, dictated by the logic of economics, found that one particular variety of potato, the Lumper, could be grown in huge abundance on relatively few acres of land while completely satisfying consumers’ nutritional needs....

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