The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

What a nice book from a good storyteller. And what is all about? Plants as protagonists in an evolutionary struggle with the rest of the world, and that world includes us. Apples, tulips, cannabis and the potato are the main characters of this tale. This thoroughly researched book will be informative for anybody who cares about plants: the avid gardener, he who likes apple pie, anybody who ever purchased or received flowers, those seeking pleasure out of plants or know the taste of French fries…. in short everybody. The amount of scientific background you have does not matter: Michael Pollan, i repeat, is an extraordinarily good story teller/science writer.

I will not try to summarize the content, i will instead focus on an important point where i disagree with the author. But do not let this criticism deter you from from reading this marvelous little book.

Anything we do is risky at some point, but if you stay in bed all day you can eliminate a lot of these risk, you will not take part in a car accident or make a fall on the staircase…. You get the point. I am not advocating staying in bed all day, I am simply stating the obvious that living is pretty much an continuous exercise in “risk management”. What I want to criticize is the underlaying risk analysis in the evaluations Michael Pollan makes, consciously or not. Lets compare the risks about biotech foods and cannabis.

The state of “modern” agriculture is indeed frightening and grave questions about its sustainability are legitimately raised. In the end however, after some trepidation, Pollan chooses not to eat the biotech potato. “I suddenly understood with perfect clarity why Monsanto does not want to label it genetically modified food. ” No such clarity for me though. No real arguments discussed to turn down the biotech potato, beyond the familiar “you never know” argument. The monarch butterfly problem is mentioned but subsequent research, published before the release of this book, has shown this issue to be much much smaller than originally reported. Allergies have and are carefully considered but biotech may actually be a solution for certain allergies. Of course we, in west, can (still) afford to use the “you never know” argument. But not everybody is so lucky. We should of course be very cautious and reduce potential risks but before making up your mind about biotech foods I suggest you read this by Per Pinstrup-Andersen or this brief statement endorsed by numerous smart people.

No such caution about marijuana. Pollan points out to the (dangerous) fact that the marijuana of his hippie years has evolved (yes the appropriate word) into a very much more potent thing. But what about the growing evidence indicating that marijuana can precipitate very serious mental illness such as schizophrenia. Before the publication of this book the evidence was not yet very strong but still worth mentioning. In the mean time the evidence has become quite extensive. I am not advocating or justifying the ridiculous police behavior so well described in this book though. We should instead talk about these risk, tell people what schizophrenia is. Get them to understand what kind of stuff the brain is made of and making the analogy with a wiring closet where it is not smart to throwing in iron powder… Want to know more? This cutting edge interview of Dr. Murray is also worth reading.

Maybe Michael Pollan should update his book as it is a perfect launch pad to become informed about these important topics, issues with life-saving potential!