Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals. New York : Penguin Press, 2006. 186-273
Grass gets a bad wrap, we step on it, ignore it and under appreciate it; but what better than the grounding feeling of walking barefoot through the grass in the summer. This wasn’t my favorite passage we have read this semester, but I still learned a lot and enjoyed reading some parts. Pollan is great at doing hands on research, as we learn about all aspects of a diversified farm from ‘grass farmer’ Joel Salatin. Pollan takes on a position as a worker on Salatin’s farm, each chapter corresponds to a different day and different tasks in his week at the farm.
I never realized how important grass is to the function of an entire farm, “But getting it just right-grazing the optimal number of cattle at the optimal moment to exploit the blaze of growth- yields tremendous amounts of grass, all the while improving the quality of the land.” (Pg 191) This way of looking at animal farming is so much more sustainable and humane than over grazing land and leaving it barren, or as Pollan compares it to the factory farm he visited in Iowa. To be honest, I skimmed through the pages when he talks about factory farms and the slaughtering, my spirit couldn’t handle the despair. But as hard as it is to learn about this treatment of animals, it is important to not be ignorant about the facts.
Pollan explores the inter-relatedness of all the components of Salatin’s farm, like how the chickens eat grubs from the cows manure. Salatin says “I’m just the orchestra conductor, making sure everybody’s in the right place at the right time.” (Pg 212) Everything is perfectly timed to utilize nature in the raising of animals for food. Even the forests surrounding the woods provide for the farm by holding moisture, preventing erosion and cooling the air. “We’re growing carbon in the woods for the rest of the farm- not just the firewood to keep us warm in the winter, but also the wood chips that go into making our compost.” (Pg 224) If only all farm’s were like this one, is sustainability and humane treatment too much to ask?
I agree with Pollan when he says, “It seemed to me not too much o ask of a meat eater, which i was then and still am, that at least once in his life he take some direct responsibility for the killing on which his meat eating depends.”(Pg 231) I think a lot of people who eat meat turn a blind eye to the uglier side of meat production, I don’t think people think about the animal that gave its life to sustain another. Maybe if people were involved in the uglier sides, they would give thought to the animal and hopefully thank it for its sacrifice. Pollan goes into vigorous detail at times that lost me a bit, like when he’s talking about the economics behind meat production. But it made me happy when he talks about how Salatin’s meat and eggs only make it to local consumers, this is the way things should be in my opinion, and in this case people were willing to come from all over for better quality food.
Something Pollan writes that really stuck to me, “But for local food chains to succeed, people will have to relearn what it means to eat according to the seasons.” (Pg 253) I’m guilty of buying off season or exotic produce, that is definitely not local. But if I am going to support local food chains, I have to practice what I preach. This summer I plan on trying my hand at drying fruit, making preserves and pickling as many local fruits and veggies that I can. Pollan ends this section with another meal almost from all locally sourced food, chicken, corn and a souffle. Overall this section was difficult for me to read at times although I am glad I learned more on these subjects.
Pollan, M. (2001). The botany of desire : a plant’s eye view of the world. New York : Random House, c2001. Pg 131-196 (e-book)
I loved this chapter on cannabis by Pollan, again he seeks knowledge from professionals; growers in Amsterdam, researchers and experts on marijuana. He starts off this chapter, “Bust most remarkable of all, there are plants in the garden that manufacture molecules with the power to change the subjective experience of reality we call consciousness.” (Pg 134) What a beautiful way of saying some plants get you stoned. He goes on to talk about how we possibly learned of the psychoactive properties of plants by watching animals, as he witnessed his cat Frank frequenting the garden for a “happy hour nip” of catnip.
I agree with Pollan when he talks about gardeners; “Deep down I suspect that many gardeners regard themselves as small-time alchemists, transforming the dross of compost (and water and sunlight) into substances of rare value and beauty and power.” (Pg 141) I relate to this since I often will take sprouted onions or potatoes and think ‘I could grow this’ and proceed to add to the collection of pots around my tiny apartment. I laughed when Pollan talked about his DIY cannabis growing fiasco, what a great story to be able to tell.
Pollen discusses how marijuana has been perfected over the years, “To succeed in North America, cannabis had to do two things: it had to prove it could gratify a human desire so brilliantly that people would take extraordinary risks to cultivate it, and it had to find the right combination of genes to adapt to a most peculiar and thoroughly artificial new environment.” (Pg 149) Cannabis has definitely succeeded in both of these, increased THC content and it’s wondrous effects on our consciousness, and hybrids making them able to grow in almost any climate; have led them to be rich from a plant’s view. I like how Pollan also talks about other drugs and entheogens such as peyote and opium, and the importance of these (especially opium) for famous poets, writers and philanthropists. Pollan also discusses some of the science behind THC, the human cannabinoid (anandamide), and the possible reasons cannabis plants produce THC.
When exploring the short term memory loss that comes with cannabis use, “For it is only by forgetting that we ever really drop the thread of time and approach the experience of living in the present moment, so elusive in ordinary hours.” (Pg 181) I thought this was a lovely way of describing the beauty of forgetting everything but the present moment and truly appreciating it; this is why, in my opinion, cannabis is excellent for stress and PTSD relief. However there are still existing taboos surrounding cannabis that originated from the Christian church fearful of “pagans, Africans and hippies” and their use of cannabis. Luckily things are changing, “What a re-enchantment of the world that would be, to look around and see that the plants and the trees of knowledge grow in the garden still.” (Pg 196) I love how he ended off the chapter with this statement, and maybe with changes occurring in Canada this will be a reality.
Hanson, Thor. The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History. (2015) ISBN 9780465055999 pg xii-18, 161-177
As I read this deadly chapter by Thor Hansen on a dreary Vancouver-like morning, eating my smoothie riddled with berry seeds; I am amazed such tiny ‘seemingly’ harmless part of a plant could be a cold stone assassin.
I love the way Hansen starts off the chapter with a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “If you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison’, it is almost certain to disagree with you sooner or later.”(Pg 161) He relates to this quote later on when he talks about the philosopher Nietzsche, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.” (Pg 168) Some of the most poisonous seeds in small doses can be used for the treatment of diseases such as cancer, “The challenge, of course is twofold: finding the right dosage, and making sure the poisons don’t diffuse to other parts of the body.”(Pg 169) It’s pretty incredible that something so harmful can also be medicine.
I loved this reading from Hansen as he provides me with another conversation starter: the great umbrella assassination of the Cold War. He describes the mystery of what exactly killed Georgi Markov, who was poked with an umbrella on the fateful day of his death, “Only one group of poisons could have caused Markov’s deadly combination of symptoms so quickly: the poisons found in seeds.”(Pg 165) I thought this was a powerful sentence, the only poison strong enough to kill someone so quickly in such a small dose is not synthetic but from nature! It was discovered to be one of the most deadly seeds, the castor bean which is often used in the oil industry, it contains ricin, “Dispersed through the bloodstream, ricin sets off a wave of cell death so unstoppable that even scientific journals describe it with something like awe: ‘one of the most lethal substances known,’ ‘one of the most fascinating poisons,’ or simply ‘exquisitely toxic.'” (Pg 166) I have never even heard of this compound before, and as Hansen describes how easily it is obtained, it is a little unsettling. “People still grow them, [castor plants] for their oil and as an ornamental, and the plant has become a common roadside weed throughout the tropics.” (Pg 168) It’s even more disturbing how easy it is to extract the deadly ricin, with just an everyday coffee grinder.
Hansen guides us through his task of learning more about these dangerous seeds, talking to experts such as Dave Newman, Derek Bewley and Noelle Machnicki. We learn more about Hansen’s personal life when his close friend and coauthor dies from cancer, “In the end, no prescription was enough-Steve died a few short weeks before I defended my dissertation.” (Pg 172) He describes the irony of seed toxins being used for cancer treatment in the form of Warfarin.
Finally, Hansen discusses the question of how plants get their seeds dispersed if they are toxic to any seed dispersing animals, “After all, what better way to protect your seeds than to kill anything that tries to eat them?” (Pg 173) It’s great that the seeds are protected but how do they get dispersed? “…no matter how toxic they may have become, the plant must have also invented some way to disperse them.” (Pg 174) So most of these toxic seed bearing plants have special mechanisms to disperse them, such as the castor bean pods that pop open and seeds are flung into new spaces. Overall, I learned a lot from this chapter and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the great mysteries of toxic seeds.
Pollan, M. (2001). The botany of desire : a plant’s eye view of the world. New York : Random House, c2001. Chapter 4
Another amazing read from Pollan, I don’t know how many times my jaw dropped and I just HAD to tell my partner about what I was reading in his chapter on genetically modified potatoes. He jumps back and forth between his story of growing his own NewLeaf Monsanto made potatoes, visiting organic and GMO potato farmers and going to the Monsanto headquarters; to the history and relationship of potatoes and people.
As Pollan starts to grow his NewLeaf potatoes, “The small print on the label also brought the disconcerting news that my potato plants were themselves registered as a pesticide with the Environmental Protection Administration.”(Pg 190) This was the first of my jaw dropping experiences, so we’re eating pesticides? I guess unless we buy organic there will be some pesticide residue left on our food, but it’s still food underneath that we are eating. Pollan later says, “In fact, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t even officially regard the NewLeaf as a food.”(Pg 236) How are we letting this happen? Well it all comes down to politics and money of course. Potato farmers who use genetically modified crops are often stuck in a vicious cycle; there is such a high demand for perfect looking potatoes “The perfect McDonald’s french fry”(Pg 229), and potatoes are so finicky that using GMOs make it a lot easier for them to care for their crops and sell them after. But when Pollan meets one of these potato farmers, “When he talks about agricultural chemicals, he sounds like a man desperate to kick a bad habit.”(Pg 218) This made me really sad that these farmers don’t have much of a choice if they want their fields to be successful.
Pollan also visits an organic potato farmer, when feeling the soil he says, “The difference, I understood, was that this soil was alive.”(Pg 223) Non organic farms use so many chemicals that the soil is barely soil anymore, this has me thinking what actually matters, a pretty looking potato with questionable contents or a little blemished potato that is wholesome and considered food. I’ll take food please.
One thing I loved about this reading was the footnotes that added extra information, after reading about McDonald’s being one of the biggest Monsanto supporters I noticed the footnote at the bottom of page 229. The footnote explained how a growing number of large food companies have stopped using GMO’s because of customers! I think I loved this footnote so much because it gave me hope after reading about the GMO horrors.
Overall, this reading made me more aware of what GMOs actually are and how they are affecting our environment and its terrifying. “‘Genetic Instability’ is the catchall term used to describe the carious unexpected effects that misplaced or unregulated foreign genes can have on their new environment.”(Pg 208) The main thing I learned is how random and risky playing with plant genes are, no one really knows the effect that it will have on the us or the environment. The possibility of “Biological pollution” disscussed on page 211 has the potential to wipe out certain crops, seen in the Great Potato Famine that Pollan talks about on page 229. When Pollan talks about how Bt toxin from NewLeaf potatoes are seeping into the soil, “This may be insignificant, we don’t know.”(Pg 211) This sums up why I don’t believe in GMOs, we DON’T KNOW what the consequences will be from messing with nature, all that we do know is Monsanto is making a killing.
Pollan, M. (2006). The omnivore’s dilemma : a natural history of four meals. New York : Penguin Press, 2006. 15-119
Thank you Lynn for putting The Omnivore’s Dilemma in our curriculum! This was definitely my favorite read thus far and have been telling as many people as I can to also give it a read. I wrote so many notes while reading because there were so many quotes I liked; but I will cut it short for the blog world. Pollan is a great writer; his writing is descriptive and informative in a funny and profound way. In this book he follows the life of corn (or at least tries to) from farm to the food we eat. What he basically finds is corn is in almost everything, and we have adapted to eating so much of it.
Pollan starts off in the supermarket, describing the huge diversity of food and the amount of processed foods, then asks an important question: “What am I eating? And where in the world did it come from?” (Pg 17) He discovers corn is linked to almost everything, it feeds livestock, used as a coloring, preservative, oil, sweetener, and more. I love how he consults with so many scientists, like Todd Dawson who is a Berkeley Biologist who studies corn, who said, “When you look at the isotope ratios, we North Americans look like corn chips with legs.” (Pg 23) Its pretty scary realizing how much corn is in the food we eat, I’ve heard it before, ‘corn is in everything’ but reading this book I realized just how true that saying is. But Pollan offsets the scariness with some humor, “A mutation this freakish and maladaptive would have swiftly brought the plant to an evolutionary dead end had one of these freaks not happened to catch the eye of a human somewhere in Central America who, looking for something to eat, peeled open the husk to free the seeds.”( Pg 27) Pollan was talking about how corn evolved from its ancestor (a grass) to its current form, that was only possible by us pollinating it every year. The history of corn is quite incredible.
I loved this book so much because Pollan went straight to a corn farmer in Iowa, George Naylor, who’s family has had that farm since the early 1900s. Pollan learned everything he could from Naylor, and what he learned what slightly disturbing. “There’s a good reason I met farmers in Iowa who don’t respect corn, who will ell you in disgust that the plant has become ‘a welfare queen'”. Corn farmers rely on government subsidies for their crops because of how low the price of corn is, so farmers will push the limits to how much corn they can grow to get more subsidies, but excess corn means its price plummets so farmers grow more to make more money. Quite the vicious circle. There is so much in this book that shocked me, that seems like things are so far gone in the corn industry I don’t think there’s any way of going back, “When humankind acquired the power to fix nitrogen, the basis of soil fertility shifted from total reliance on the energy of the sun to a new reliance of fossil fuel.”(Pg 44) Ammonium nitrate, created in WWII for explosives, is now used as fertilizer, getting into ground water, streams, lakes, where it wreaks havoc.
I was unaware of how much pride corn farmers have in their products, a man could be drowning in debt to produce corn, “But in Iowa, bragging rights go to the man with the biggest yield, even if its bankrupting him”(Pg 55) More and more corn being produced, there is such a surplus that it has to find its way into everything to be used, “I should have known that tracing any single bushel of commodity corn is as impossible as tracing a bucket of water after it’s been poured into a river.”(Pg 63) I thought this was a profound analogy that really shows how much corn disperses into everything. Then, Pollan gets into factory farming, and although I’ve been a vegetarian for 3 years, it makes me cringe, “These places are so different from farms and ranches that a new term was needed to denote them: CAFO- Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation.”(Pg 67) My heart broke reading this section titled Cattle Metropolis, but it’s so important for us to be aware of how our food gets to our table. Cattle are not meant to eat corn, and it leads to so many health issues because their stomachs and liver cannot handle it, but they are slaughtered at such a young age that these issues don’t kill them; it only makes them suffer. I like how Pollan talked to Dr. Mel Metzin, the vet at a factory farm who sees the issues caused by cattle corn consumption. But there is such an excess of corn, that feeding cattle this way is so much cheaper, and higher in calories than grass (what they are meant to eat). “We make them trade in their instincts for antibiotics.” (Pg 76) Cows eating cows? Just give them some antibiotics to avoid diseases like mad cow. Problem solved?
I loved the shocking way Pollan puts things into perspective, “It takes a certain kind of eater – an industrial eater – to consume these fractions of corn, and we are, or have evolved into, that supremely adapted creature: the eater of processed foods.”(Pg 90) Its pretty crazy how we went from hunter gatherers to believing some extremely processed masses with flavor and sugar added is actually food. Pollan mentions that in the 70s an additive manufacturer defended itself by claiming natural foods were a, “wild mixture of substances created by plants and animals for completely non-food purposes – their survival and reproduction [and that they] came to be consumed by humans at their own risk.”(Pg 97) Wow, and people actually believed this?
Overall, I loved this book, from the beginning at the supermarket til the end of the cycle at a McDonalds eating fast food with his family. My favorite quote that ended the book for me was “But then, this is what the industrial eater has become: corn’s koala.”(Pg 117) I have no desire to be an industrial eater, I do not want to be another corn koala, but is it even possible not to?
Diamond, J. M. (2003). Guns, germs, and steel : the fates of human societies. New York : W.W. Norton, c1999. Chapter 4, 5, 6, 8
It took a lot of coffee to get through this reading, Diamond’s writing is more factual than other readings we have been assigned, but also very thought provoking. Throughout his book, Diamond asks a series of questions such as “Why did food production develop first in these seemingly rather marginal lands, and only later in today’s most fertile farmlands and pastures?” (Pg 94) and “Since those areas on nonindependent origins were suitable for prehistoric food production as soon as domesticates had arrived and why did the peoples of those areas not become farmers and herders without assistance, by domesticating local plants and animals?” (Pg 94) These questions he answers by giving numerous examples of what happened in places where plants and animals were easily and quickly domesticated (the Fertile Crescent) and places that domesticated much later after some ‘founder’ crops were introduced (New Guinea and Eastern USA).
When I previously read chapter 7 of Guns, Germs, and Steel there wasn’t much context as to who Diamond is, so I was happy that with reading further readers do find out more about him. At the start of the chapter 4, Diamond ages himself when he talks about working as a farmhand in Montana as a teen. He touches on the discourses that we have become accustomed to; the heroic conquest of Europeans that fails to mention the dire effects it had on indigenous populations. He also shows a bit of his humorous side when he talks about being in Papua New Guinea and the tribe he’s staying with brings back mushrooms for dinner; when he asks if they are poisonous the tribes people get angry saying “Only Americans could be so stupid as to confuse poisonous mushrooms with safe ones.” (Pg 144) It’s shocking how much these indigenous peoples know about their local plants and animals. But when it is the way they have survived for thousands of years, it makes sense that they would be so knowledgeable; just like the people from Tell Abu Hureyra. Archaeologists have found that villagers from Tell Abu Hureyra had 3 uses for the 157 species they collected; edibles, edibles that can have toxins easily removed, and for dyes and medicine. (Pg 145)
I didn’t realize the role animal domestication played on plant domestication, “Only over a thousand years later, with the introduction of the ox drawn plow, were those farmers able to extend cultivation to a much wider range of heavy soils and tough sods.”(Pg 88) Domestic animals were able to increase crop production by providing fertilizer and the ability to use large scale agricultural equipment such as plows. But domesticated animals also had adverse effects to developing areas, “Germs thus acquired ultimately from domestic animals played decisive roles in the European conquests of Native Americans, Australians, South Africans, and Pacific Islanders.” (Pg 92) In figure 4.1 it shows the progression from suitable wild species to the development of technology and dense sedentary societies. (Pg 87) I also didn’t realize this progression that all started with the domestication of suitable wild species, “Hence the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents.” (Pg 92) Today’s society is all a product of domesticated plants and animals; pretty mind boggling when you think about it.
In parts of Diamonds book, I got a little lost and had to stop to pour more coffee, such as radiocarbon dating and the numerous examples from the past. Although these made his book more of a story that made it easier to read, I also wish he cut out some of the examples and details. But he obviously spent a lot of time gathering all of this information on botany, animals, history, anthropology and archaeology, when he himself is a physiologist. Although, I found the theories and big ideas very interesting; “The arrival of ‘founder’ domesticates enabled local people to become sedentary, thereby increasing the likelihood of local crops evolving from wild plants that were gathered, brought home and planted accidentally and later planted intentionally.” (Pg 100) Areas where conditions weren’t the best for plant and animal domestication benefited from these founder species from other areas that had increased crop production. A lot of Diamonds writing made complete sense when I thought about it, but most of it I had never thought of before, “The people of areas with a head start on food production thereby gained a head start on the path leading towards guns, germs and steel. The result was a long series of collisions between the haves and the have-nots of history.” (Pg 103) I think these two sentences can be a quick summary for what this book is about, the link between food production and ‘progress’ and the interactions between societies with and without food production.
I like that Diamond puts into context the long process that led to domestication, “…it took thousands of years to shift from complete dependence on wild foods to a diet with very few wild foods.”(Pg 107) This makes me appreciate living in this age where I don’t have to depend on wild foods for survival, “In reality, only for today’s affluent First World citizens who don’t actually do the work of raising food themselves does food production (by remote agribusinesses) mean less physical work, more comfort, freedom from starvation, and a longer expected lifetime.” (Pg 104) I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a hunter-gathering, never knowing exactly where you’re next meal will come from and if there will even be a meal. I also like that he questions which came first; increase in food production or an increase in human populations. It’s another one of those questions that really makes you think and is still debated.
In chapter 8, Diamond explains the advantages the Fertile Crescent had that made it able to domesticate so much earlier; high diversity, seasonal climate changes, varying altitudes, and animal domestication. (Pg 138) His final conclusions to his previous questions are it all depends on the environmental factors, and there is much evidence to prove this. He ends by stating his thesis, “…regions differed greatly in their available pool of domesticable species, that they varied correspondingly in the data when local food production arose, and that food production had not yet arisen independently in some fertile regions as of modern times.” (Pg 155) I agree with his thesis, I don’t think it was a regions people that prevented food production, but the environmental factors such as the domesticable species available.