The Hidden World of Seed Warfare

Hanson, Thor. The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips, Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History. New York: Basic, 2015. N. Print. “Chapter 8-11.”

This week’s reading definitely reminded me of my favourite television show, “Breaking Bad”. The beginning of Chapter 11 brought me back to the scene in the show, where a chemist teacher and heroin addict are working together to climb their way up the drug chain, and they come across a dilemma where they see murder as their only choice. A deathly plant-based poison seemed to be an ideal weapon choice. Who would’ve thought I could relate Breaking Bad to biology class!

Regardless of the somewhat eery topics, I thoroughly enjoyed pages 113-175 in Thor Hanson’s book, “The Triumph of Seeds”. My favourite part was Chapter 11, “Death by Umbrella.” I was a little freaked out when I discovered the meaning behind the title of this chapter.

Who would’ve thought an umbrella would become the optimal weapon for getting away with murder! The umbrella gun is engineered to shoot a tiny pellet that has 2 holes drilled in the side to leach poison into the target’s body. If you were to draw a dot with the tip of a pen, that’s how small the pellet is. I never would’ve imagined such advanced technology like this existing and being used! You may even be familiar with the plant that they derive this poison from, the caster bean plant. Caster beans are popular ornamental plants; there is even one on my school campus. The poison in the plant is really in the seed of the caster bean, which contains a peculiar, and deadly storage protein called ricin. This protein is highly beneficial for the growth of the plant during early stages, but if an animal ingests this protein, the odd structure of ricin can penetrate and kill living cells. On page 166, Thor explains how “ricin sets off a wave of cell death” and how it’s one of the most lethal substances known on earth. A tiny pellet can have the power to kill every cell in the human body many times over. I found this entire topic fascinating and I will never look at an umbrella the same!

What I really enjoyed about this chapter was the contrast between his topics of discussion. He begins the chapter talking about poisons from seeds being used in historical events, but he ends on a much more personal note. He explains how these powerful and peculiar proteins can also benefit humans, rather than just poison us. Hansons’ most powerful statement for me was on page 171, “But our almendro-tasting moment was so deeply ironic. At the time, neither of us knew that Steve’s cancer had reawakened and spread to other parts of his body, and that within a few months his doctors would probably start prescribing a variation of the very compound we’d been joking about.” I thought this was a really interesting aspect of the chapter. Hanson engages us in these stories of how seeds have undoubtedly impacted technology. Whether they are used to help fight a deadly disease like cancer, or to become a deadly murder weapon, like the umbrella. This week’s reading, has shown me the hidden world of seed warfare.

 

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Secret Desires, Aren’t So Secret

This weeks reading was on chapters 1 and 4 of Michaels Pollans book, Botany of Desire. I finally understand this title. Plants have evolved to fulfil our desires, just as we fulfil theirs. Plants know our desire for sweetness and control.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pollan M. 2001. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World. Toronto (ON): The Random House Publishing Group. Pages 3-58, 183-239

 

Pollan explains the human desire for the sweetness of the apple, and our control of the potato. Both chapters explain how for centuries, plants and people have been co-evolving, forming a symbiotic relationship. I find this book engaging and thrilling to read, as it opens my eyes to so many new connections I never knew existed. Pollan includes thought-provoking facts, as well as personal stories. My favourite chapter was Chapter 4, Desire Control, the Potato. I enjoyed this section the most because Michael made this much easier to understand the story of the potato. I suppose I preferred this chapter more because I love getting my hands dirty rather than tending to fruit trees. I’ve always felt a strong connection when I’m in the garden. Pollan expresses his connection to the garden throughout this chapter. I enjoyed how he related back, multiple times, how he planted the Newleaf potato as an experiment. This made his perspective, ideas, and concepts easier to connect to.

 

In chapter 4, Michael tackles a strange and mind-boggling concept.

Page 185, “Agriculture is by its very nature, brutally reductive, simplifying natures incomprehensible complexity to something humanly manageable.”

But the strangest fact is that, nature supplied the necessary genes or mutations that made agriculture possible.

Nature also created humans, and humans created gardens, then gardens provided new niches ready to be inhabited by these novelty genes and mutations.

 

If that isn’t cool I don’t know what is!

 

 

 

 

“The People of Corn”

Pollan, M. 2006. Omnivores Dilemma. England:Pengiun Books Ltd. pages 15-119

 

I poured myself my morning glass of orange juice, and began to read. With my glass only half finished, Michael Pollan had already managed to completely change my perspective on the so called “orange” juice I was drinking. Do I really know what I’m putting into my body? It’s almost like can feel the corn running through my veins as I sipped my healthy citrus drink.

 

I was absolutely amazed with all of the products that we use that are made from corn! Juice along with many other products Pollan listed such as;

  • Beer
  • Coffee Whitener
  • Cheez Whiz
  • Frozen Yogurt
  • TV Dinners
  • Ketchup
  • Canned Fruit
  • Candies
  • Most Soft Drinks
  • Soups
  • Snacks
  • Cake Mixes
  • Frosting
  • Gravy
  • Frozen Waffles
  • Syrups
  • Hot sauces
  • Mayonnaise
  • Mustard
  • Hot dogs
  • Bologna
  • Margarine
  • Shortening
  • Salad Dressing
  • Vitamins
  • Relishes

 

Corn travels into these products by chemical names such as;

  • Glucose Syrup
  • High-Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Maltodextrin
  • Unmodified or Modified Starch
  • Crystalline Fructose
  • Ascorbic Acid
  • Lecithin
  • Dextrose
  • Lactic Acid
  • Lysine
  • Maltose
  • HFCS
  • MSG
  • Polyols
  • Xantham gum
  • Caramel Colour

 

Also, some non-food items containing corn;

  • Toothpaste
  • Cosmetics
  • Trash Bags
  • Disposable Diaper
  • Cleansers
  • Charcoal Briquettes
  • Matches
  • Batteries
  • ‘Shine’ on Magazines
  • Wax on Cucumbers
  • Pesticides
  • Ingredient in Cardboard
  • Parts of Building Structures (Wall board & Joint Compound)
  • Linoleum
  • Fibreglass
  • Adhesives

 

I will never look at corn the same. My citrus juice I drink every morning, is sweetened with both glucose and fructose syrup as the first ingredients. Sad part is, most of my favourite foods are made of corn! So why are we “The People of Corn”? How did this happen?

 

In Michael Pollans’ book, he goes into great detail explaining the many reasons humans have grown so reliant on corn. The most engaging section of the book was, There Goes The Sun, pages 41-47.  In this sub-chapter, Pollan explains how there were excessive amounts of Nitrogen left over from World war 2, from the all of the chemical warfare used. The idea arose that we should use the excess, nitrogen-rich chemicals for the farmers fields as the first man-made, synthetic fertilizer. Corn farmers had amazing results and continued using it until the world had a surplus of corn! With all of this corn, and advancing technology, scientists came up with a variety of ways to use corn, such as all of the synthetically produced chemicals listed above. We did this to ourselves. Omnivores Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, tells an amazing theory about how we transformed ourselves into “The People of Corn”.