Initiative 522

November 2, 2013

For those about to vote in Washington regarding Initiative 522 and the labeling of products that contain genetically modified foods, you should watch the last half hour of Botany of Desire. I wrote about this PBS documentary a year ago. I want to draw your attention to the potato and history of genetically modified foods in this case.

The film is neither for nor against genetically modifying plants, so it makes for an interesting watch. At the heart, it really criticizes how the public demands the same quality of food with every eating experience, and so farmers plant only one variety to meet that demand. Now this variety, after time, will begin to grow week, as we are not allowing it to evolve into a new variety, yet the pests and diseases are. The plants begin to have no resistance. For traditional farms to compensate, the film argues, we either have to spray or make genetic modifications. The film does offer a third solution, which does require a little bit more education on the consumer’s end.

Further reading: The Columbian, Local farmers come down on both sides of I-522. Oct 20, 2013



Botany of Desire

November 16, 2012

Watching Botany of Desire has been on my docket for a while. The two hour show was made by PBS in conjunction with Michael Pollan’s book of the same name. It originally aired in 2009, but you can find it at PBS’s website, Netflix, or probably even your library. It talks about four plants and how humans have propagated them. Or rather, how these plants have caused people to propagate them. The four plants include themes. They were:

  1. Apples – sweetness
  2. Tulips – beauty
  3. Marijuana – intoxication
  4. Potatoes – control

While I did find the other plants fascinating, I’m only going to focus on the apple, which was the first 30 minutes.

So apples, as I have mentioned, started in Kazakhstan, where they have wild apple tree forests today. They talked about how the apple spread, that a sweeter tasting apple were more likely to be eaten by a mammal, including humans, and therefore the seeds were more likely to be spread. Humans, however, discover grafting as a way to clone trees. If you recall, apple seeds are like mammals in that two of them can have the same parents, but be completely different, so in that wild forest in Kazakhstan, no two apple trees are the same variety.

Skip forward a few millennium to around 1800 and John Chapman, AKA Johnny Appleseed. Chapman had some religious beliefs that kind of had him believing in letting nature be as it is, so he went around planting apple orchards on the frontier out of apple seeds. When he did this, two things occurred. First, he was actually kind of “rebooting” the apple for North America as far as evolution was concerned. Only those seeds strong enough survived in America to pass on their genetics. Secondly, very few of the apples were actually sweet, so up until about 1900, 95% of apples went into hard cider. It was safer to drink than water, and was a way of making something inedible edible.

The program then says apples became a victim of their own propagation success. With the beginning of the Prohibition movement in the 1830s, the apple was seen as a contributor. This then brought about a race to find the sweet tasting eating apples out of the cider orchards before they were cut down, as if someone had a good one, they could be rich. This is also why the word cider morphed from being an alcoholic beverage to being a sweet unpasteurized juice in American linguistics. This is also the origin of our modern concept of apples – the rest were eradicated.

Pollan says that finding these sweet apples made us start grafting again, which halts evolution. He called this monoculture, where we plant the same tree variety over and over again. In fact, for a while, there was really only a hand full of apple varieties in America in the grocery stores as a result. However, the bugs, mold, fungi, viruses, etc still keep evolving, and eventually they figure out how to pick the resistance lock the tree had against them, as the tree is not evolving. It is like never updating your anti-virus software on your computer despite hackers getting smarter and smarter. In the agriculture world, this means we humans have to spray the trees to compensate, which is expensive.

Attempts are being made at trying to make the apple biodiverse again, but it is happening in laboratories rather than in the wild. And sure, people could plant seeds, but it is such a gamble. If one in 300 trees has sweet tasting apples, what do you do with the other 299 tree’s apples? Nobody wants to eat them. (Watching three years after it was made, I wonder with the resurgence of the cider industry if this practice will resume again.) There is also a bit of a complaint that apples are sweet yet flavorless, so the extreme control we humans have had on apples is being questioned.

I highly recommend watching this show. The tulips talk about how people also spread them and caused Tulip Mania. The marijuana section talks about how we even managed to take a 12 foot tall plant and grow it in doors. The potato one talked about how it helped the industrial revolution, though it suffers from monoculture as well, which is why the Irish Potato famine happened. It is a fascinating watch.

Further reading: