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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 books author and the films 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. Well see how our illusion of control over nature shackles us to monoculture farminga 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 Americas 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 potatos 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, McDonalds dropped them like, well, a hot potato.
The films 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 Noahs 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 plantsincluding how the potatos migration to Europe made the industrial revolution possiblecheck out the DVD of The Botany of Desire, available at shopPBS.org.