Apples on tree in Geneva, New York
Photo: Edward Gray
Veg-head that I am, I skipped the parts about marijuana and psychedelically hued tulips in the documentary The Botany of Desire to focus on the segments featuring apples and potatoes. The title of the film, from the book of the same name, refers to plants’ enticing us to labor for their survival, according to the book’s author and the film’s dominant talking head, Michael Pollan. Not that Pollan is pushing some paranoid fantasy about our plant overlords. Viewing our domestication of plants from their perspective, he says, can give us a fresh look at ourselves. We’ll see how our illusion of control over nature shackles us to monoculture farming—a system that just makes us more vulnerable to the vagaries of climate and to the superadaptability of insect pests, who always seem to be a step ahead of our efforts to eradicate them.
The film also reveals our role as consumers in all this. Take the example of America’s appetite for French fries: to produce the fries’ long, crispy strips, the fast food industry relies almost exclusively on a single type of potato, the Russet Burbank. Our infatuation with this potato led agri-corporation Monsanto to genetically alter it, introducing a bacterium into the potato’s genetic code as a built-in pesticide against a particularly pesky beetle. Foreseeing a PR nightmare when the public started asking questions about their use of genetically engineered spuds, McDonald’s dropped them like, well, a hot potato.
The film’s advice for preserving plants that have entwined their lives with ours includes conserving lots and lots of varieties of seeds. Visiting a USDA-run apple research center, described as a botanical version of Noah’s ark, the camera lingers on luscious images of red, yellow, green, and purplish fruits. How can you not fall in love all over again?
For more about the shared history of humans and four iconic plants—including how the potato’s migration to Europe made the industrial revolution possible—check out the DVD of The Botany of Desire, available at shopPBS.org.