Pollan, Michael. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World. 1st ed. 1. New York: Random House, 2001. 181-238. Print.
“Feed the world.” That seems to be a common response as to why we need industrial monocultures involving prescription style pesticides and to use the latest genetically modified crops. You see, it’s a humanitarian effort, really. We know that we are damaging the soil, human health, and water quality, but it’s really for the greater good of feeding the world. This is the message that we receive from many industrial farmers, and even from companies such as Monsanto, on the surface.
So what is really the problem here? From reading of Michael Pollan’s encounter with large scale organic farmers, there seem to be other ways. I think the issue really comes down to us as humans wanting a quick fix or an instant solution, essentially the ‘make-your-life-perfect-with-this-simple-pill’ mentality. We tend to like this idea in many area’s of life, including nutrition, fitness, happiness, technology, and agriculture being a few. Unfortunately this is not how most things in life work, try as we might to fit the circle of life into a square box. Growing perfect looking, straight rows of potatoes that all look the same appeals to certain part of all of us. The sense of control is exhilarating, pumping our ego’s up to the point of bursting, and occasionally they do burst. Pollan describes the irish potato famine, which ultimately happened because of a monoculture of a single variety of spud. A monoculture works, until it doesn’t. Herbicides and insecticides work, until they don’t. It is to essentially put all of your eggs in one basket, hoping that the basket doesn’t break or fall. The solution from the pesticide industry is that when a pest becomes resistant to a chemical, just increase the strength. Use more chemicals, stronger ones, a different combination of them. But where does this end? Since the introduction of pesticides crop losses due to pests has not gone down, in fact it has actually increased! We do not need new chemical cocktails for our monocultures, we need less monocultures. We need to consider what is causing the problem in the first place and consider changing systemically the way in which we think about growing food.
In an economics class that I am taking this might be called “Opportunity Cost”. This concept essentially means considering what you are giving up as a result of making a particular decision. So in economics an example might be that as a result of a country buying new fighter jets, they now can put less money towards education, the cost being not only the dollars spent, but also the social cost of a less educated population. In agriculture one can also look at this, considering the cost to our environment and future generations as a result of of modern agriculture methods. What are giving up?
This attempt at agricultural perfection does not only lie with the farmer though, it ultimately comes back to you and me. We are the ones who demand perfect, smooth, shiny fruits and vegetables. If there are imperfections, we simply do not buy them. So why do we look for this? Pollan proposes a link: the large food corporations, the McDonalds of this world, advertise perfect looking food, planting desire into the minds of billions, and we en masse then want nothing less. The corporation then demands perfect products from the farmer. And subsequently the farmer needs, or is told they need, to use a cocktail of pesticides to achieve this standard. As in many things, it is easy to externalize the blame, but I think that we all need to acknowledge our own role in the madness that is the monoculture philosophy.