In Person

Michael Pollan at the Organic Trade Association Conference

Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan (Photo By John Anderson)

"When I was talking to my wife about coming to speak at the conference I told her that I expected to be pelted with rotten tomatoes," environmental journalist Michael Pollan said at the opening session of the Organic Trade Association's (OTA) first annual All Things Organic Conference & Trade Show, held in Austin last week. "She said, 'Well, at least they'll be really good, organic tomatoes. Hopefully, Muir Glen.'"

Pollan, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Harper's, offered this anecdote as a kind of ice breaker to the roomful of organic food producers, distributors, and other industry representatives -- some of whom were not thrilled to see him at the podium. Pollan had been asked to speak in order to present his recently published book The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World (Random House, $24.95), a work of literary nonfiction that elucidates the social and cultural histories of four plants (and which, incidentally, features organic farmers as heroes of modern agriculture). But after he wrote a cover article for The New York Times Magazine in the May 13 issue on how both the word "organic" and the movement itself has transformed and splintered as it has become a multibillion dollar industry over the past three decades, his anticipated reception at the conference also changed.

"I knew there were people in the room who didn't want me to be there," Pollan told me after his lecture, as he mentioned that some of the larger corporations that are members of OTA that had been featured in the article almost had him unasked to the conference. "And I was half hoping they would disinvite me," he continued. "It would have been just fine with me if they'd said 'you can't come.' On the other hand I would have told you, I would have told my editors at the Times, and they would have had a public relations debacle on their hands."

The furor seemed to stem from the fact that the article, titled "The Organic-Industrial Complex: All About the Folks Who Brought You the Organic TV Dinner," debunks the organic industry's marketing narrative of "the supermarket pastoral" by showing how the public's associations with the word "organic" as implying healthier, less processed, more local, and more animal-friendly food, is being exploited by large agribusiness companies that don't necessarily stand by those associations. We now have food labeled "organic" that contains synthetics, organic milk that is generated by cows on desert "factory farms" where the bovines never see a blade of grass, and organic frozen fruit traveling from as far away as Chile.

Pollan noted that he does not consider the article an exposé and that he was surprised by the intensity of some of the OTA members' responses to the article. "Usually, someone writes a critical article, and you contain the public relations troubles," he said. "This got really personal. People felt really hurt and were not used to it, getting any kind of criticism from someone they perceived as being on their side."

In Person

During his lecture, instead of talking about his new book, Pollan discussed the changes wrought by increased industrialization that have entailed both gains and losses for the movement, and encouraged OTA members to develop new narratives that will accommodate the expansion of "organic" beyond its original conception. He then participated in a panel discussion, in which four OTA members ranging across the spectrum of Big and Little Organic (from an organic farmer from Oregon to a General Mills vice-president) talked about the history of the organic movement from each of their perspectives. Speaking to the mostly middle-aged, white, and notably bearded, casually shirted, and khaki-pantsed audience, each panelist talked at length about their salad days in the movement of the Seventies -- when organic techniques were being pioneered, the motto was "food for people, not for profit," and idealistic goals concerning social justice were a big part of the organic mix.

Both the talk and the panel discussion seemed to go smoothly in the end, with Pollan fielding earnest questions and signing books after the panel discussion. The author, who has also written numerous articles criticizing genetic engineering's influence on contemporary agriculture, pointed out that part of the unhappiness with his article probably comes from the idealism still dear to members of the organic industry. "I think for a lot of these people it's important not just to make money but to be perceived as virtuous as well, and anything that casts any doubt on their sense of virtue -- I think that's very hard to take, and I can understand that. I feel the same way, but I'm not a businessman."

In The Botany of Desire, Pollan dramatizes many of our paradoxical impulses, such as the tension between our Dionysian desires for freedom and our Apollonian desires for order, while telling the stories of four domesticated plants that he believes have cultivated us to cultivate them. Each chapter of the book is devoted to the social evolution of a plant and how it has managed to survive and thrive in the modern world by appealing to something humans really want: the apple's sweetness, the tulip's beauty, cannabis' ability to intoxicate and transport, and the genetically modified NewLeaf potato's appeal to our sense of control.

The book is structured as a kind of pastiche of literary genres, including myth, biography, scientific exposition, and memoir (an avid gardener, Pollan has grown all of the plants he describes in the book). As such, it affords an expansive range of information in a manner that is highly digestible. The big stories of each chapter (such as how marijuana came to be the biggest cash crop in the U.S. as a result of Reagan's war on drugs) are augmented by fun and esoteric mini-essays on topics like Johnny Appleseed's evangelistic and vegetarian ways, how a gene gun functions, Carl Sagan's (and other writers') insights into the nature of a pot high, the gorgeously multi-varied apple forests of Kazakhstan, and what a meme is.

What makes these asides compelling is Pollan's blending of historical and scientific fact with sensual description and also quite frequently with imaginative speculation. Poets are cited as frequently as any other authority in the book, and Pollan's erudition and obsession with his diverse subjects can assume the rapturous, as in this passage on pollination: "The bees! The bees will let themselves be lured into the most ridiculous positions, avidly nosing their way like pigs through the thick purple brush of a thistle, rolling around helplessly in single peony's blond Medusa thatch of stamens -- they remind me of Odysseus's crew in thrall to Circe. To my eye the bees appear lost in transports of sexual ecstasy, but of course that's only a projection. It's only a coincidence -- isn't it? -- this passionate flower-bee embrace that made people think about sex for a thousand years before pollination was understood really is about sex. 'Flying penises' is what one botanist called bees."

Throughout the book, Pollan argues for a democratic viewpoint of the natural world and our place in it, expressing amazement at the unconscious ingenuity of plants and critiquing the human tendency to simplify and reduce rather than to explore the complexities we experience. After the conference (and before a discussion with officials from one of the Big Organic companies upset by his article), Pollan explained his theory of co-evolution.

"Think of all the trees that have been cut down to make room for the grasses," he said. "It makes just as much sense to a Darwinian to say that agriculture was something that the grasses came up with to get us to cut down the trees. Evolution doesn't have one point of view. There's nobody in charge. The point of view of every species has to be taken into account. It's hard to do -- every species is self-centered, like the bee, like us. But what I try to do in the book is give equal time to the plant's point of view, because so far as we know they don't write books."

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Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World

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