Friday, 13 April 2012

"Life is a Sine Wave" The Ups and Downs of a Culturally Significant Stimulant

It is midday and the heat is in full effect as I enter Nanyuki, a small town in the Kenyan central highlands. I arrived in this place via the most uncomfortable way possible – a matatu crammed with about 20 Kenyans sitting wherever (and on whomever) they could. Despite the uncomfortable ride, you can’t beat paying 50 KSh to hitch a ride to an adjacent city no matter what country you’re in. These highlands are surrounding Africa’s second highest peak and the mountain for which the country is named – Mount Kenya, rising up 5199 meters above sea level, is the only place in the world on the equator that has snow and ice blanketing it. The lush green hills and forests are interspersed with crops and farm land in these highlands and are not exactly what most people think when they think of the quintessential “African” landscape. The dry, searing desserts to the north and the Great Plains to the south seem to fit the bill more. But this too is East Africa, as trucks zoom past day and night without regard for law or courtesy to deliver their payload to nearby markets. What is their payload? It is a plant, Catha edulis to be more precise. Known as miraa in Kenya, or more commonly khat, the plant is extremely popular among the general public (some would say a staple, but that is a stretch). I knew relatively little about this celebrity and set out to the nearby market to retrieve some for myself. 

When I arrived, the smells of barbequed corn and goat was in the air; bananas, avocados, chickens bound together, various pieces of meat and other staples of a normal diet were assorted on dirty tables left out in the sun and various would be customers pawed at them from time to time. The Western side of me was a little perturbed however, the “I don’t care I am in another country” side of me was excited at all the cheap fruits and meat both alive and dead. As I walked through the market eating my newly acquired corn I asked various vendors if they had miraa. The reactions I got were mixed but could general be summed up as “What?” or “Not here other place.” I was shocked, because everyone I asked had a visible wad in their cheek. I left the market a little off put and bewildered wondering if it was because I am a mzungu that they didn’t sell to me or because they couldn’t understand my Canadian accent. I wandered the town ignoring beggars, chanters and salesmen as they came up. And eventually I came to a small wooden enclosure with no sign that a truck was parked next to unloading. As I got closer I noticed this ragged, red wooden box looked a lot like a kid’s lemonade stand. Sure enough this is where I was able to buy miraa for the first time; 40 Ksh for a small bundle wrapped in a banana leaf. I thanked the man as he smiled and said something along the lines of “enjoy this wondrous plant!” I took off down the road on foot to a camel camp I had read about, with excitement in hand.

Catha edulis was a plant garnishing a lot of attention in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (and also within me as well).  But what exactly is it? Well to put it simply, it is a small shrub or tree that grows in well drained, rocky soil and is harvested for its light red juvenile stems that are chewed for its stimulating and euphoric effects.  Being an evergreen, it does not lose its leaves throughout the year and is a dicot that produces small dry fruits that dehisce to release 2 or 3 winged seeds that land and sprout. The mother tree can also send out roots that grow into new, genetically identical plants that can produce seeds before maturity (which is extremely helpful in spreading offspring as far as you can, since the plant is so slow growing). Kenya is one of the top producers of C. edulis, and giant fields are able to be grown through asexual propagation via cutting (which is also the way people manage to grow them in countries that the plant is illegal). 

The euphoric and stimulating effects described as “godly” by many Kenyan locals can scientifically explain by two alkaloids contained in the stems: cathine and cathionine. These are amphetamine-like substances that cause a general sense of wellbeing, stimulation, appetite suppression, and excitement (perfect for labours and farmers working long hours for low pay). Due to its amphetamine-like substances and effects, the World Health Organization (WHO) dubbed the plant a drug of abuse in 1980, leaving approximately 10 million chewers worldwide scratching their heads. In comparison with other drugs of abuse, miraa seems to be one of the least harmful and dependence forming and infact has been noted to relieve the symptoms of asthma, diabetes and intestinal or stomach tract disorders. On the flip side, it does have negative consequences: A study done to determine reaction times and cognitive flexibility between Khat users and non-khat users shows that the accuracy was much lower across all of the tests, and the error rate higher in the khat users. The results suggest that recreational use is associated with impaired cognitive flexibility, which is found to be similar to long-term amphetamine and methamphetamine use. Another study conducted showed that while chewing, a significant and progressive rise in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure can be observed. Originally I thought these trucks rocketing down dusty roads were doing so because people just couldn’t wait to get another shipment; however there is a scientific explanation for this manic driving as well. When picked, the stems must be consumed within 72 hours due to acute degradation of cathine and cathonine. This means if you chew an old plant, you will get nothing other than a bitter taste in your mouth and the regret of having wasted money on a defunct plant.

I arrived in the camel camp about an hour after leaving Nanyuki. There was no sign on the road stating there may be anything down the side dirt road besides a ribbon and an old fig tree. I wandered down the winding road, avoiding the ducks at all costs (I was attacked by farm ducks about a week prior, leading me to believe they were the most dangerous animals in the country). I eventually came to a stone rotunda with a camel skeleton imprinted on the side and was greeted by two very cheery Kenyans. They showed me around and explained a bit about their camp, how they hand built the grass huts and the tree house on the river. These men were from the Somali tribe of Northern Kenya, and spent most of their life living a nomadic existence.  They just recently settled down (although they would still walk up to 60kms in a day to retrieve camels for mzungu to ride for enjoyment). I got settled in my grass hut and soon realised I was not alone in the small hut; a family of shrews lived in the wooden frame right above my bed. As evening came I went out to meet the nomads for tea and dinner. The camel milk chai was the best I’ve had thus far in the country, the camel milks sweetness really made the tea great. After dinner I noticed that the nomads were chewing miraa and I pulled out my banana leaf parcel and began to join them. They told me exactly what I needed to know:  chew some stems and leaves and push it towards your cheek, keep chewing more and more as the wad gets ground and crushed, chewing gum will help with the bitterness and dry mouth, and to not swallow your chewed ball. I kept chewing and drinking with the nomads just chatting about everything that came to mind. 

After a lot of chewing and stems it finally started to kick in. I was alert, excited and above all extremely talkative. I was living the Kenyan motto of Hakuna matata. We talked about everything around a glowing fire: life, death, work, Canada, Kenya. The night wore on and a big man dressed in camouflage emerged out of the night brandishing an assault rifle. The big man pulled up a seat and pulled up a few banana leaf clad bushels, all the while I had my gaze glued to the assault rifle. I was transfixed on the gun, not afraid just interested in it (the miraa and beer probably helped with that).The man broke the silence laughed and passed more miraa around the circle. He happened to be a friend of the nomads and was on break from his guard duty at a nearby manor. The night wore on, and the laughing and talks went long into the night until we eventually retired to our huts. The shrews were still playing above my bed as I lay down for the night in the rickety hut. 

Morning came after a few hours of tossing and turning and we met for breakfast. Shortly after, chewing began again and this time lasted for more or less every waking hour of the weekend. I helped tidy up and take care of the bastard ducks and stray dogs, walked with them and tried to do as much as I could. When Sunday finally rolled around, it was time for me and the stationary nomads to part ways. They had to begin a long trek through the Kenyan landscape to get camels for a British family who wanted to ride camels on Monday. The nomads made their business in camels and their non-stop work ethic was fueled by miraa. We said our goodbyes and parted ways, me to Naro Moru for construction and them back to their camel slinging duty. I left with a new found respect for the plant, the habit, the pastime of a country, and wonderful memories with two new friends: Joseph and James.

To this day some of the most important conversations I’ve had took place around that camps fire, fuelled by miraa. Conversations that I will never forget, that humble me and allow me to look at things in a different light.  Catha edulis is a drug. It is a habit. It is harmful. It is a culturally significant pastime. Why something like this is illegal in North America is understood: It contains two banned alkaloids that can cause direct or indirect harm to a user. It is not native to North America; it was brought here due to initial curiosity and an influx of immigration from the countries where it has a cultural stronghold. On the flipside, it is just as easy to see why it is not banned in countries such as Kenya, Yemen, and Ethiopia. It has been used since the 6th century, approximately 600 years before coffee in the area and has become a large part of the culture and society in these countries. It gives farmers, labours, and nomads a boost to work hard jobs for long hours to make $10 a week for their family, it gives them something to sit down and enjoy, it gives them life. And sometimes that is more important than if something may or may not shorten your life by a few years.

My experience with miraa was a good one. I regret nothing and even chewed periodically throughout the rest of my time there. It definitely gave me more energy made construction work much more enjoyable. Catha edulis is a plant with quite a reputation and it is well deserved from both opposing and supporting parties. It has scientific backing for negative side effects and even a few positive ones, but in comparison with other WHO dubbed drugs of abuse it looks like a saint. Culturally, the drug is important to where it is natively found, much like Kava in Vanuatu, Ayahuasca to Amazon tribes, or Peyote to the people of the Chihuahuan desert area.  The magnificence of plants can be seen all over the world. Cures and poisons, hallucinogens and stimulants, food and drink. Plants hold keys to all things humans seek and require to have a grand and sustained existence.
Matatu – Mini bus
Mzungu – Person of foreign descent
Hakuna Matata – No worries

Works Cited
¥   Abdel-Kader ZY, Adbo-Rabbo AA, Al-Mansoob MAK, Awad AY, Gunaid AA, Hassan NAGM. 2000. The effect of Qat chewing on blood pressure and heart rate in healthy volunteers. Tropical Doctor 30:2 – 107-108.
¥  Al-Hebshit N and Skaug N. 2005. Khat (Catha edulis) – an updated review. Addiction Biology. 10 299-307
¥  Colzato LS, Hommel B, Ruiz MJ and van den Wildenberg W. 2011. Khat Use Is Associated with Impaired Working Memory and Cognitive Flexibility. PLoS ONE. 6:6 article e20602.
¥  Klein A and Metaal P. 2010. A good chew or good riddance-How to move forward in the regulation of khat consumption. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 132:3 584-589.
¥  Nutt, D., King, L., Saulsbury, W., Blakemore, C., 2007. Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse. The Lancet 364, 1047– 1053
¥  The Vaults of Erowid <> Accessed February 11th 2012
¥  Wikipedia <> Accessed February 11th 2012

Monday, 26 March 2012

A Troubling Muse

Pollan, M. 2002. Marijuana.113-179 in The Botany of Desire. Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
                Alteration is a mind set. Everything around us must be changed: clothes, looks, nature, consciousness. We strive to change everything for the better, to fit in better, to live better, and open our mind. We were once hunter-gathers, now we are a mass of sedentary animals linked by agriculture and globalism trying to forget the old ways or teach them as a thing of the past. It is inherently human and inherently natural. Evolution and natural selection for advantageous traits and alters the gene flow of entire species over long periods of time. The beaver falls trees and builds dams for homes and a more suitable place to live and breed, termites build mounds, bees build hives; animals alter their environment in both loud and subtle ways. Many animals eat plants to alter their consciousness as well; the Jaguar gnaws on roots of Banisteriopsis caapi or ayahuasca in South America. But the greatest at altering appearance, environment, consciousness and anything else is without a doubt Humans. We have the intelligence, and use it to artificially select for things we like; we can block natural selection to keep things alive for our use.  Altering our perception goes far back into our history, through every colony, tribe, and ancient people. What is fascinating is how every culture (besides Eskimo, as Pollan points out) converged on the use of psychoactive chemicals and “...this suggests that the desire to alter one’s experience of consciousness may be universal” (Pollan, 139).

                Like many other plants, marijuana has been altered by us. We altered it to produce what we need and want out of the plant. We can get hemp to weave clothes and textiles, and we can get a psychoactive drug - usually not in the same plant. Its captivating to think that we altered the same plant for two different uses completely “...the first more or less spiritual in nature and the other, quite literally, material.” (Pollan, 158) Marijuana does not get the kudos is deserves for its plasticity. It just goes to show how humans can alter everything around us to something we need and drag life forms unwillingly (or willingly) with us. Even today with the war on drugs* raging and marijuana forced into basements, sheds, and mountain sides, were still altering it for our benefit. This time we are after THC, the active cannabinoid in marijuana, and its concentration in the plant. Over the years we have distorted the plant so the THC content is much greater and therefore it can satisfy us (we alter the plant so its better at altering us). No one really knows why marijuana has THC in the first place, some say it was waiting in the wings for us to figure out its magic and then it was taken under our protection and has co-evolved with us to suit our needs. The opposite end of the spectrum breeds an argument that“...its unlikely that...’a plant would produce a compound so that a kid in San Francisco could get high.’” (Pollan, 156). This party believe the plant produced THC as a deterrent for grazers – the unassuming patron may get an undesired effect and not want to return, or forget where they got the plant all together.  Whatever its history and evolutionary path it can be clearly identified as under artificial selection by humans at the present day.

In Pollans The Botany of Desire, he chooses Marijuana as his psychoactive plant to profile. The plant is notorious all over the world and has a rabid fan base both for and against it. Arguments are made in conflicting parallels. It is a poison and a medicine. It is a vice and a way free. It can inspire and it can trouble. This is what draws us to plants like marijuana, kava, ayahuasca, peyote, khat, coca, opium and many more. This air of mystery, of objectivism, of stigma and history. “The bright line between food and poison might hold, but not the one between poison and desire”(Pollan 114). These plants offer chance and chance alone; the chance to broaden your mind or to harm and drag us down. No matter the case we are drawn to this gamble to gain experience and to learn all we can from the world, our world. What Botany does well is bring in multiple viewpoints from such greats as Huxley and Charles Baudelaire and allows the reader to see various points of view on the same drug. Some think it is a gateway to understanding, tolerance and beauty  others think it gives a false sense of enlightenment. No matter Huxley, Baudelaire, Pollan or anyone elses opinion about these psychoactive photosynthesizers one thing is certain – the collective human fascination brought them to the walk the dull line of poison and desire. 

                The want for alteration is not just a human experience; were just the best at it. The use of psychoactive drugs to alter our consciousness is a controversial one but, if indigenous tribes and history teaches us anything, it is not new idea nor a evil one. We have always been curious about what something with so many question marks and stigma can do for us. And that is whatever your subjective experience might teach you. Some people are inspired and manufacture the most beautiful ideas and art and believe the mind is broadened, others think it is a false idol that breeds pretentiousness, and some think it is a thing of savagery that has no place in the modern globalist world. The developed world is labeling and dubbing what is right and wrong, leading people to lead a life of selective altercation (altering in ways that is thought to be accepted and modern), forgetting what communities and societies have been intrigued by for years. Despite the conflicting views from every party, the curiosity is, and will always be there, and that is a beautiful thing to behold. We may live in a sedentary present, but the mind is always moving, changing, and stretching for experience, and a life we may never have. Alteration is more than just changing everything around us and about us; Alteration is a mind set.

*  On the war of drugs: "The results are gruesome at every ­level. We are creating a vast prisoner under­class in this country at huge expense, increasingly unable to function in normal society, all in the name of a war we have already lost." -Fareed Zakaria

Zakaria Fareed. Incarceration Nation. Time. 2012. Accessed March 26 2012.<>

Sunday, 12 February 2012

"Water, water everywhere..."

      Pollan, M. 2006. Page 15 -119 in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The Penguin Press. New York.       

                 Corns importance to the 21st century North America cannot be emphasized enough. Virtually everything we eat is made up at least in part of corn in one form or fraction. Number 2 corn is grown in vast amounts across the United States, in giant seas of green, yellow and white. As patriotic as that may sound, it is not, for number 2 corn is “basically inedible,” and is a commodity that must be “processed or fed to live stock before it can feed people” (Pollan, 34). As inedible as this corn may be in a pickup and eat aspect, it manages to weasel its way into our diets more than any other plant; The meat we eat comes from cows feeding almost exclusively on this corn (and antibiotics for good measure), the soda pop we drink if sweetened with high fructose corn syrup processed from this over achiever, and even our beloved fast food (gasp!) is made of processed corn. As Michael Pollan states in The Omnivore’s Dilemma the ancient Mayans considered themselves corn people and we must as well (unfortunately in an extremely industrial way). Throughout the first act of Pollan’s ode to our eating habits, he follows  corn from the farm to feedlots to the processing plant to the consumer – an extremely daunting task and one he describes himself as trying  to “follow a bucket of water once it has been dumped into a river”  (Pollan, 87).

                “Measured in terms of output per worker, American workers like Naylor [corn farmer] are the most productive humans who have ever lived” (Pollan, 32). A single farmer like Naylor produces enough food to feed 129 people but unfortunately it “can no longer feed the four that live on it” (Pollan, 34). This is due to the ridiculously cheap price of commodity corn and just how far we break it down. The drop in price causes farmers to produce more corn which in turn results in an overproduction of corn that fuels the system for subsequent turns. It’s sort of like self-perpetuating positive-feedback system comparable to the one used in many functions in a human body (such as childbirth), except the biology is an industrial one. Typical farmers sell their “corn for a dollar less than it costs him to grow it” (Pollan, 53) causing farmers such as the Iowa folk discussed in Ominvores Dilemma to bend a knee and succumb to the corn in order to (ironically) feed themselves and their family. And so the “plague of cheap corn goes on and on” (Pollan, 54).

                Probably the most eye opening part of the book was the section where Pollan visited a feedlot to see the steer he purchased earlier in the year. On top of the horrible living conditions that many people know about (or plead ignorance about), the cows are also forced to eat this corn that we dub as inedible, day in and day out rather than their typical diet of grass. Feeding on corn causes the cows to grow faster so they can graduate from “Bovine University” as the Simpsons eloquently put it, but scientific research is starting to determine that “corn-fed meat is demonstrably less healthy, since it contains more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids” (Pollan, 68). So once again, we trade health and quality for speed and quantity the way only a human would. We force these animals to eat food that they would not instinctively eat for our own profit, forcing them to “trade their instincts for antibiotics” (Pollan, 76). Much like the farmer must do to feed his family, the cows themselves must “adapt or die,” but unfortunately we won’t let them just die (because it wouldn’t benefit us, of course).

                Wet milling, or basically industrial digestion, processes the corn in giant plants to pieces, fractions, and chemicals of commodity corn so it can be used it basically everything bad for your health. Even of love and dependency on fossil fuels is linked to processing corn as for every “one calorie of processed food it [wet milling] produces, another ten calories of fossil fuel energy is burned” (Pollan, 88). The processed food industry is a fierce one as companies bide for the best new product for as long as they can before their competition mimics it. The intensely secretive nature of such grandiose inventions as Count Chocula are a “ driven business” (Pollan, 94) that I look at as who can make the next best cookie cutter to shape the processed and moulded corn to appeal to a mass audience. For everyone to make money, the overproduced corn must be used in high amounts and this is where marketing tricks us into buying more, bigger, better products that wow our taste buds. Of course super size is not needed, but it is just a few cents more so why not? Because we are fuelling a system that causes overproduction by under paid farmers and tricks us into buying more of the densely fatty and calorie ridden foods. We are wired to enjoy sugary or high calorie foods from our hunter gather roots to allow us to coast from meal to meal easier, and these are what these processed foods are – a food with more fat and calories per square inch than any natural food. They are playing off your natural evolution and biology and getting you to eat more and more of these foods that are putting us in early graves. The entire system of this commodity corn has a sheen of moral ambiguity. What Pollan managed to do in Omnivore’s Dilemma is astounding – it frightens, disgusts, and enlightens the way a message of this importance should.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

"It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

Pollan, M. 2001. The Potato. Page183-238 in The Botany of Desire. Random House, Inc. New York

Decaestecker E, Gaba S, Raeymaekers JAM, Stoks R, Van Kerckhoven L, Ebert D, De Meester L. 2007. Host-parasite ‘Red Queen’ dynamics archived in pond sediment. Nature 450:870–3

Genetic engineering, poisons and potatoes – A farmer life is definitely more complicated that it was in the past. The selective monoculture of the contemporary society is causing a great deal of stress to both our lives and the plants we choose (or not choose) to grow. Pestilence and insects are concerns to a farmers crop and they must be fought tooth and nail if we want to survive (and make money). But this battle is extrapolated by us. “Agriculture is, by its very nature, brutally reductive, simplifying nature’s incomprehensible complexity is something humanly manageable...” (Pollan, 185). A quote that’s bitterly true about monoculture; we pick and choose what we what (say Russet potatoes for the best French fries) and grow it in extreme amounts, killing all intruders who grows on its land. While we may have the best potatoes for French fries (and in large quantities, thank god) it does leave us vulnerable. The Irish of 1845 know this all too well as the blight came and wiped out there potato crops, leaving them with little food to rely on.  The great famine reportedly caused Ireland’s population to fall between 20%-25% in just seven years (granted a lot of that came by way of immigration as well). Their reliance on relatively little crop diversity was their downfall. Currently, we defend our crop with chemical weapons – both internally and externally. By using Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), Monsanto has created NewLeaf potatoes, which are capable of producing a toxin that kills the Colorado Potato Beetle if he dares taste it. Organic farmers dare not use such a thing, but sometimes (as in the case with Percy Schmeiser) wind can cause “environmental pollution” (Pollan, 213) of GMO free crops.  Percy was taken to court by the Monsanto juggernaut for growing their plant without a patent. Monsanto has somehow patented entire plants and can sue people if they find their plants on your property without a patent, and seem to dismiss the idea that plants can cross-pollinate and even have their seeds carried by anything but a tricky farmer trying to screw Monsanto out of $15 an acre. While Schmeiser eventually won a small battle and Monsanto had to pay to clean his crops of their GM canola, they still hold a patent on these plants and continue on their way. I guess I should be writing NewLeafas it is listed on Monsanto's websitePollan touched on these same patent laws while growing his NewLeafs but also found another interesting yet worrying fact: “The plants [NewLeaf potatoes] themselves were registered as a pesticide with the Environmental Protection Agency” (Pollan, 190). So now not only are plants being drenched in chemicals externally, they internally produce another poison which they claim not to be hazardous to humans (we’ll see in the future I guess).

There is also the problem of super plants – plants that become increasingly resistant to chemicals we use to kill them. These resistant plants reproduce creating a whole population of resistant plants causing us to use stronger poisons to kill them then they once did, something Percy Schmeiser stressed great concern about. All these chemicals we use to keep weeds or insects out is startling, and it is constantly increasing in potency and number. All of these chemicals, toxins, whatever you call them, could be the downfall of our sustainable agriculture and even our health as time goes on, and what is Monsanto answer to this? “There are a thousand other Bts out there, we can handle this problem with new products” (Pollan, 215). This has got to be the worst way to deal with this inevitable problem – just throw more new chemicals at them that will make us a ton of money! It seems like a lazy answer and not a proper fix at all, just more poisons littering the ground and food of our already poisoned world. But, perhaps there is more to this than I originally thought. A couple years ago, I read a paper called “Host-Parasite ‘Red Queen’ dynamics Archived in pond sediment” that provided evidence for the Red Queen’s Hypothesis which is an evolutionary system between two competing species. This is a sort of evolutionary arms race in which one species develops an advantage to another competing species, leaving the other to develop something to counteract said advantage. This goes back and forth in competition and eventually the species will have some completely difference traits (perhaps being stronger in one way, but weaker in a way it stronger in the past). In the paper listed above, they found pond sediment with Daphnia and its parasites going back years. What they found is that the parasite is most virulent to the Daphnia that is current, rather than previous or future generations. This means that although Daphnia are getting more resistance and advantageous traits against the parasite as time goes, the parasite is evolving with Daphnia, and therefore it may lose some of what made it so virulent to past Daphnia in favour of new traits to be more virulent with the current Daphnia. With all this evolving, changing, and selection going on, neither of them got very far. This dynamic can also be seen in predator-prey interactions. Now to relate this to these super plants; perhaps new (or even old) chemicals are just the thing to control these super plants. Maybe (I may be way off here) the plants being selected for currently that are resistant to our current chemicals are not resistant chemical the plant was resistant to in the past. So instead of increasing the potency and toxicity of the chemicals being used, switching between less strong, safer chemicals after set periods on time (years) around and around could do the trick. Either that or the plants will just keep getting more resistances and were all fucked, but hey I am no scientist and could be completely in the dark here.

The Incas created a spud for every environment instead of changing the land to suit just one type. They had dozens of species of edible potatoes and showed immunity to such threats as the blight that decimated Ireland. It was a natural defence against nature. However by Western standards, an Inca garden would have looked “patchy and chaotic” (Pollan, 193), something we cannot stand. Even with the monocultured Russet Burbanks grown today, we spray them with some of the most toxic chemicals available (Monitor) just to stop aphids from giving our brilliantly organized potatoes net necrosis; net necrosis cause brown spots on the Russet Burbanks. While the potatoes taste fine the brown spots produced would cause farmers to reject a whole crop for aesthetic reasons alone. We are so concerned with aesthetics we are willing to spray a harmful chemical just so we can eat without being bothered a simple blemish. Makes sense. Although Monoculture has its problems, I’m afraid we’ve gone too far to turn back to the chemically free, diverse Inca way. We must deal with our problems in the future not the past and for better or worse, genetic modification and chemicals are at least part of our future.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Human Criteria

Diamond, J. 1999. How to make an almond. pg. 114-130 in Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, New York.

Pollan, M. 2001. Introduction. Page xiii to xxv in The Botany of Desire. Random House, Inc. New York.

Both of the readings cited above were overlapping in their theory and information presented, however they had different points of view and when read consecutively added to each other significantly. Guns, Germs, and Steel approached the domestication of plants and the human-plant interaction with a humanistic explanation (we domesticated said plant because we want it) , while The Botany of Desire seems to make us think more about maybe we are the ones being used. After all, certain plants, such as the oak tree, we would love to domesticate for the acorns produced but we have not been able to, even with today’s technology. So what is the true story?

Like everything in life, I believe nothing is black and white. We are not the lone ones benefiting from the domestication of plants, nor are plants – the true story is gray. Its true humans are the best (or worst) at altering and controlling our environment to suit our needs, and through various methods of trial and error, the domestication of certain plants occurred throughout our history. We saw what we liked, we took it, and we grew it. Through this act, we were able to pick what we liked and artificially selected it against the usual natural selection. The example used in Guns was almonds. Almonds in the wild contain amygdalin, which is metabolized to cyanide, however we eat them by the handful when we buy them in the store. This is because a mutation of a single gene in the almond prevents the synthesis of amygdalin and, therefore, the almonds are delicious and edible. Humans at one point or another stumbled across this mutant plant and started cultivating and caring for these plants leading the plants to be able to reproduce – even though in nature these almonds would be eaten before reproduction. This human intervention blocks natural selection in favour of our human criteria.

Birds, bats, bees and many other animals pollinate and disperse genetic material for plants, however they “don’t fulfill the other part of the definition: they don’t consciously grow plants” (Diamond, 116) like humans do. We collect, harvest and plant the most desirable plant to use – back to this human criteria. However, while “human desires...connect us to these plants” (Pollan, XVII), the plants also benefit. In nature, plants with certain mutations (such as the edible almonds described in Guns) would be stripped clean and fail to reproduce, where as the amydgalin containing almonds outcompete and reproduce effectively; in human cultivation, we take these mutants which should be selected against and protect them, giving them a sort of second chance to reach that “moment of bliss” (Lyn Baldwin). The protection granted allows these plants to thrive with our help and reproduce more than they could ever could in the wild, leading to a benefit for both species.

 “Plants are so unlike people that it’s very different for us to appreciate fully their complexity and sophisitication.” (Pollan, XIX). This quote for Botany of Desire speaks loudly to me, as I myself didn’t have any interest in plants before being forced into learning about them in my second year of my bachelors, however the more I learn, the more respect I have. I personally look at domesticated crops and fruits as opportunists of the plant world – much like the Mako Shark, which follows boats for easy meals or the common crow –seizing a opportunity presented. These plants were easy to domesticate and thus can almost be thought of as willing to fit the niche we unknowingly created for them.