Win “Botany of Desire” DVD.
Also, what’s up with its GMO position?


BotanyofDesirePlants in Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire

AND THE WINNER IS:  Wendy Tweten.

How to Enter

For those poor souls who missed the awesome documentary about Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire the other night, there may still be hope for you.  Just visit PBS's online extras about the show and tell us in a comment what you found interesting there – or didn't.  Be honest (this isn't a suck-up-fest).  Then at 9 pm Eastern tomorrow (11/2) we'll randomly choose the winner.

Now about their take on GMO plants

In the last segment of the show, the one about potatoes, we're told that enormous amounts of pesticides are sprayed on them to combat the Colorado potato beetle.  All very expensive for the farmer, and pesticides are better avoided in any case.  So along comes the Bt potato with its added gene for the bacteria that kills that particular bug.  This Bt-containing potato, called New Leaf, saves farmers a bundle and, you know, saves consumers and the planet a helluva lot of pesticides. 

Ah, but the story takes a turn: public fear over this genetic fiddling leads to the demise of the Bt potato and, we presume, the return of the regular spraying regimen.  

But Pollan declares that it's NOT a choice between GMO and pesticides – that the
answer is organic farming.   Finally, the narrator raises the inevitable question: "Can organic farming feed the world?" but doesn't answer it.

So here's my beef. Isn't Pollan the very same guy who used to sound awfully pro-GMO, saying it's the last, best chance of drastically reducing the use of pesticides?  Now he's clearly on the anti-GMO side so I'd like to know how and why his opinion changed.  Also, how about an answer to that tricky question about whether traditional organic farming methods can feed our overpopulated world? 

Now  before you all throw things at me, on the question of GMO technology I'm no supporter – just an agnostic.

Photos in collage, clockwise from upper left: by Martin LaBar, Laughing Squid, Soylent Green, and Mediterrate.


  1. When nature cross pollinates it is ok but when man fumbles around it is not. Granted GMO is pushing the seed pack but can there be any good from this?

    The TROLL

  2. As far as the site goes, the most interesting thing there wasn’t even there: at the bottom in the interact menu there’s an “altering consciousness” option, which if you click that and go to the opium poppy page, click “molecule” and then “next” and then “interactive molecular model of morphine” you get a java dealie on this page ( that lets you grab a model of morphine and twirl it around, which is a lot better at giving you a sense of the molecule’s shape than trying to imagine it from 2-D diagrams on a page, like we had to do in my day.

    Of course, this means the part of the site I found the most interesting wasn’t even part of the site.

    Meanwhile, The Scientist Gardener had a rebuttal to part of BoD, the part about monocultures, here (further elaborated on and explained here, at James and the Giant Corn), which has actually gotten me considerably more confused. The gist seems to be that modern industrial monocultures are considerably more diverse on a genetic level than any of the ancestral species, because the modern varieties have had multiple disease-resistance genes bred into them from multiple sources, and the ancestral varieties all have a lot fewer such genes. So to kill a species potato, you just need the one key that fits the one lock, whereas for a modern industrialized potato, you need a key that will unlock several unrelated locks. Something about this doesn’t sound right to me, but I’m having trouble figuring out exactly what isn’t ringing true.

    Anyway. Pick me pick me pick me.

  3. GMO scares me. It has proven to be very harmful for animals, some items even completely sterilizing the critters.

    That being said, I am not about to tell anyone what they can and cannot eat. I just want to know what I am eating so that I can stay on the safe (and real!) side of food. And I think GMO shouldn’t be used so prevalently that you cannot find items without it. I have heard that almost all soy products (even organic!) might be GMO.

    I am not pro-GMO but I am pro-labeling…and knowing what you are eating!

    Plus, as Jeffery Smith (GMO Author and activist) said once: “GMO, for all you evangelicals out there: God Move Over!” haha love that.

  4. What’s wrong with me? I found the BoD to be rather slow and I turned it off halfway through. I wanted to hear about potatoes, but couldn’t face another hour. I thought the few interesting things were too widely spaced to merit watching all the stuff in between. I admit I was a bit peeved, early on, when MP said something like ‘of course plants aren’t intelligent’. DUH! Of course they don’t speak English but my definition of intelligence goes a lot deeper than that. And I guess I missed something about GMOs — which really scare me. Inserting squirrel genes into soybeans (or whatever) just plain FEELS wrong — I suspect it will prove to be the height of agricultural hubris in the not too distant future. Give me the goods the way nature set them up. A little human-inspired selective breeding is ok, but keep the agro-chemical maniacs out of my pantry and garden.

  5. Great content, terrible narration. It’s amazing how good programmes can be held back by the wrong narrator. Reading the book right now though, which is pretty neat.

  6. Ever since big brother took away my TV (it hasn’t worked right since the switch to digital last June, even with the box…and I’m not getting cable, because then they win!! [Deep breath] I’m OK now.) I’ve learned to live without network programming. It hasn’t been all that hard, actually, except when a show like Botany of Desire comes on. So I would love to win a copy of the show. My 11-year-old son could watch it with me, continuing my efforts to imprint an interest in gardening on his impressionable young mind.

    As far as the Botany of Desire site goes, I found myself especially drawn to the story of apple trees, as we have two seed-grown specimens on our property. They both produce wonderful fruit, entirely different from each other. So we’re doing our part to promote the genetic diversity of the species.

  7. I loved the book and now I love the program. Yes, it was long, but so worth it. Plus we got to see our own Amy Stewart’s comments. What could be better than that?

    I have long believed that we are doing the plants’ bidding and they are the ones in charge. Isn’t providing plants with protections from disease and other dangers something that helps them skip a few millennia of evolution? And have we not been digging up and burning their fossilized relatives to release all that stored up CO2 so plants can photosynthesize better?? I know Halloween’s over, but when you think about it, plants are spooky.

  8. OMG the most interesting thing HAS to be the tulip deadheading contraption with the deadheaders all lined up face down on the rig, pluckin’ away. Worth the price of admission! As tulip mania always escaped me (although I have nothing against the little pretties), this was thoroughly entertaining. Perhaps the alternative title should be “The Insanity of Desire”?- not to diss all the tulip connoisseurs out there…

  9. I’m willing to speculate that the Irish were using organic gardening and farming methods when the great potato famine occurred, so that blows the ” all organic all the time ” will save us from natures scourges mantra down the compost pile.

    GMO with Bt sounded and performed like a great idea for the short time that it was in use, but with all things a tolerance could have taken hold and then there goes the unnatural mutations path that is the scary unknown part.

    The quote that most stayed with me was spoken at the end of the program. Pollan said that ‘nature will always win over design’.
    As a designer who works in collaboration with nature on a daily basis I found this to be very true.

  10. Having read the book years ago and forcing it under the nose of anyone who I thought may find in interesting – I looked forward to the show. I was not disappointed.

    On the comment section of the PBS site I found it interesting that one poster was upset that prime time hours were used to air a program about illegal substances. It made me wonder if he learned anything from the other segments of the show, or if he watches what else comes on during primetime.

  11. mr. subjunctive: If you need a citation I would recommend reading Genetic Roulette and Seeds of Deception by Jeffery M. Smith if you are looking for more information. He can also point you to more reading material.

    Many many people have come to the conclusion I have stated and it is no secret.

    I do hope you look more into the pros and cons of GMO. I did a paper over it, spent months researching. Almost everything I found came to a similar conclusion.

  12. We have an apple orchard and I am fascinated by the varieties that are available. That is the part of the website that interested me the most;all about apples. Although the whole thing looks interesting. I just requested the book from the library.

  13. I liked that the focus wasn’t solely on Michael Pollan. I liked the human dimensions – stories by and about individuals associated with each plant.

    Fascinating factoids: potato + milk = complete meal; the most coveted tulip during Tulipmania created by a virus; and prized marijuana buds by sexually frustrating female plants.

  14. I haven’t read ‘Botany of Desire’ – and only saw about two thirds of the show. I enjoyed it – but then I like anything that describes the sometimes perplexing journey of a crop to market (and economic success). It shows, in a way, how silly we are – and how blind.

    But I didn’t feel that Pollan’s pro to con switch with GMOs is now anti-GMO necessarily in a broad sense, or even that significant. I think what the show failed to connect with – which perhaps will be in a forthcoming book (hopefully) – is not that organic farming is better or the use of pesticides is bad or that GMOs are going to select for resistant strains of terrifying pathogens – in and of themselves, each of these strategies will be unsuccessful in a sustainable way. So as a component of a solution, they are ultimately insignificant and not the key question. The observation that drives stability in ANY ecosystem is diversity – and we need to make a serious effort at better diversitying our farming practices. I think we improved slightly after tobacco became less dominant (relatively speaking of course) – but right now far more research dollars goes into genetic engineering of crops than it does in incorporating diversity into farming practices in an economically viable and sustainable way. Any other approach will only be successful in the short term – and we will once again find ourselves revisiting the same questions over and over again.

    “When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.”

    – John Muir

  15. Cotton cloth has genetic BT in it. My dogs aren’t dying when they chew socks. We’re wearing it.
    It’s not natural to live longer than worms.

  16. After watching the last half of the show (missed the first half) it was my understanding that researcheres were seeing evidence that pests could become resistant to the BT in the BT-engineered plants faster than if it was just applied on an as-needed basis. Which means we’ll just have to start using pesticides to kill them or genetically engineer something else to take the place of the BT-infused strains. This may explain Pollan’s change of heart regarding GMOs.

    @Michelle D-LOL-good point that the Irish were probably using organic farming methods before they got hit with the blight. I think the point the show made is that organic has to be sustainable if it is going to be successful. The reason that the Irish were hit so hard by the blight is because they were all growing the same type of potato; there was no variety and, therefore, nothing they could turn to when their single crop failed. Hence the need for crop diversity, organic or not.

  17. I am so sorry that I somehow missed this showing! I am diving into the companion website now.
    It looks like a lot of the program is available via video streaming on that site although I am not sure if it is the entire show, might help some of you looking for specific sections.

  18. The problem with (some) genetically modified plants is that you can’t contain them. Many plants, like corn, are pollinated by the wind. Pollen granules can travel amazing distances. Consequently, we are losing our “pure” strains of crops because genetically modified crop pollen is blowing into the fields from nearby farms. Thus, we are actually losing the diversity of our crops.

    Does the BT potato really only kill one type of caterpillar? It’s hard to believe that a bacteria is so specific and has no other host. What other, possibly endangered, caterpillars are killed when they chew on the potato? What if that caterpillar decides to start eating another crop?

    I confess I did not see this program on TV since I do not own a TV. A computer and free wifi is all I can afford these days.

  19. BoD was another well-done PBS program! I found the book very interesting and was both glad & sad that the documentary contained some different facts & info than the book.

    One thing I was wondering is whether the Bt potato could be used as a trap-crop for the beetle? Perhaps this wouldn’t work on a large-scale farm, economically.

    Not sucking up, but I loved seeing Amy’s interview in the tulip section. Flower Confidential was an awesome read.

    However, probably my favorite part of the documentary was that it got my husband even more interested in both our garden & making the trip to the farmer’s market every week. The documentary really brought home to him what I had been talking about. That is priceless. I would hope it did the same for other watchers too.

  20. Susan,
    I would be very interested in MP’s response to your question. Have you attempted to contact him/ask him directly?…or…maybe you know that he visits this terrific blog and are hoping he will respond?

  21. There’s a MP interview in the most recent Organic Gardening — he was asked if organics can feed the world, and his answer was (this is a paraphrase) “I don’t know, but if even if we can replace only half the world’s food with organic, isn’t that better than nothing?” I thought it was a reasonable answer. The article didn’t discuss GMOs.

  22. The reason that Late Blight wiped out all of the potatoes in Ireland was because out of desperation potatoes were being grown as a monolithic crop. There were no significant buffer zones of other crops, and no significant crop rotation going on – much like our current industrial agriculture system.

    My take on GMO crops is not that GMO crops have anything inherently wrong with them. It is the lack of testing of these products that scares me. Monsanto actively squelches testing of its products. Also, varieties of plants that are created to be doused in more pesticides rather than less – yuck. And there’s the horrifying trend towards GMO-makers suing organic farms to death when the GMO pollen contaminates the organic crops. While genetic modification could be used to improve the world’s food supply safely, it is instead being used to earn its makers as much money as possible, while not addressing long-term problems.

    There are also issues not just with GMO crops, but with conventional agricultural practices in general: the land has been so energetically plowed, and plowed, and plowed again, that there is no longer significant worm, insect, or fungal life in the soil. Monoculture farms displace and kill larger life-forms. Erosion is a huge problem, both for the farm’s productivity and through pollution of water downstream. And in conventional practices, the depleted nutrients in the soil are replaced with additives of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, but lesser nutrients aren’t added back to the soil, and therefore don’t end up in our food.

    Due to these problems, our current agricultural model is unsustainable. If modern agriculture (GMO companies included) don’t step up to address these problems, then organic farming will be the only option left.

  23. Stewart Brand is a wildly GMO supporter, and says that world population will decrease sharply after 2050 due to poor people moving into cites, and having less children (children work as farmhand in the fields, but are burdens in the city). I’ve a hosrt video on my blog about it.

  24. Best thing about the show – my school-age kids were fascinated (it was re-broadcast Sunday afternoon) by the idea that plants use us as much as we use them. Maybe more. It got my son interested in plants as something more than food source. And my daughter is now looking to try some plant breeding, with high hopes of making an “even more perfect” (her words) coneflower.

    Oh, yes – & the sexually frustrated female flowers = bigger more powerful marijuana buds ? Incredible !!

  25. I found it funny how some people loved the narration and others were turned off by it. I guess opinions will differ on just about everything. I read about the show here. Amazingly I remembered to turn it on, and I’m so happy that I did. I really enjoyed it and was surprised that the section I thought would be my favorite (tulips) was actually one of the least interesting sections. I absolutely loved the apple segment and the potato segment definitely stirred up some discussions in our house.

    My favorite website section is the video extras about hard cider, and how difficult it is to market the cider here in the states. It makes me want to go search our local shops and see if I can find any of Poverty Lane Orchards different ciders just to try them out.

  26. All insects will eventually become resistant to all but the nastiest chemicals. This has been going on since the beginning of agriculture and resistance to GM traits is an inevitable fact of life that surprised no ag scientists. Developing new and improved pesticide is routine science, just like developing new antibiotics.

    I’m pretty happy with GM Bt corn and soybeans nonetheless since they replaced organophosphates as a way to control corn root worm, etc. No matter what “possible” threats are associated with GM Bt, we KNOW organophosphates are extremely dangerous.

  27. I called the liquor store the next day. Found the number in the yellow pages. I asked if they had hard apple cider. Some dumb kid asked around and said they had pear cider and apple stuff, too.
    The only apple cider they had was mixed with brandy.

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