The following is a transcript of a conversation between Michael Pollan, the author of The Botany of Desire, and Michael Schwarz, the producer/director of the film. The discussion took place after a screening of The Botany of Desire that was hosted by City Arts & Lectures at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco on September 16, 2009.
Thank you very much. Thanks for that warm reception. I think what we're going to do is, you know me a little bit better than you know Michael Schwarz, who's the producer of the film and is more responsible for what you just saw than I am in many ways. And we're going to just chat a little bit, ask each other a couple of questions, and then turn it out to you. And we'd both be happy to answer any questions that the film raised for you. One of the things you might not know is that the two of us have been friends and collaborators for a very long time, since my very first job in New York City, back in 1976, or '77. We worked at a succession of magazines together before Mike abandoned print for television. And we've collaborated in many different ways. In addition to being a brilliant filmmaker, Mike has edited my books and helped me with that, and I've looked at his films and offered comments. So we have a collaboration that goes back. So it was totally natural to me when I had finished writing The Botany Of Desire, back in September 2000, to send Michael a copy of the manuscript before it was published. And which raises the question, what took you so long? It's 2009.
You know, I'd like to say it was all part of a grand strategy. But first, it's debatable who's more responsible for the film, because my feeling about this is that when you start with material that's as good as your book, my first thought was, do no harm. Don’t screw it up. So it took a while to figure out how to approach the whole question. The second thing is that I wanted to give you some time to write a few more books so that you would get a little better known, so that when we did finally finish the film, people would actually watch it. And I think that worked out pretty well. And finally, when you have as one of your main characters a marijuana plant, funding can be very difficult. So, really the main reason it took so long is it took nearly five years or more to raise the money.
And I want to just take a moment to acknowledge somebody who's somewhere in the audience, named Valentine Kass, who works at the National Science Foundation. And Valentine, from the first time she heard about this project back in 2001, or 2002 was a supporter. And there were several times along the way when she rescued us from the brink of oblivion, because we hit a wall looking for funding. Valentine was there first with a major production grant. And then when we really were stuck, the grant was structured in such a way that we were able to spend a little bit of the money with no strings attached. And she said if you could advance the interest of the project, then spend that money. So what we decided to do was to produce some of the material about marijuana because there were a lot of questions about how we would treat the story. A lot of people were reluctant to support the program without knowing that. And although we'd spent what seemed like years trying to write about it or talk about it, in the end we felt that the only way that we could answer the question was to show them. And so we used some of that money to produce a sample of the marijuana material. And having seen that, PBS then came in and supported us and that really made the difference between getting the program made and not getting it made.
So I want to thank Valentine and the National Science Foundation for supporting us. Thank you. And also, I should add the Columbia Foundation here in San Francisco was a supporter, PBS was a supporter, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Often people say, what's the hardest part about making a film? The hardest part about making a film is raising the money to make that film. So without the support of organizations like these, we really wouldn't be here tonight.
And, and I think it's important to understand that this funding period was really at the height of the drug war. And for an organization like the National Science Foundation to stand behind a film like this at a time when there were many people in government who regarded this sort of treatment, which is not a pro pot treatment, but it's certainly not in the conventional terms of the drug war, took a lot of courage.
And indeed, as I saw it standing outside waiting for Mike to get his funding, to get this thing going, it was a measure. I knew the drug war was almost over or drawing to an end when the money came together. There were times early on in the process where, I don't know if you want to talk about this, but you were asked by people within the public television world, would you consider another plant?
And we always knew which plant they had a problem with.
Yeah, we were asked that at one point. Would we substitute the grape instead? But...
...Yeah, we had an uncomfortable conversation about that.
But it was fairly easy to decide to stick to the marijuana, which was a much more interesting story. And so we stuck to that. But I wanted to ask you, how did you stay so patient?
How did I stay so patient during those nine years? Well I didn't have to do very much. I wasn't writing all these thick grant applications. Indeed the fact that the project unfolded so slowly, changed it, I think, in various ways. Because when we started, I still lived on the East Coast. And I had a big garden where I had grown all these plants. Yes, all these plants. And we were going to use that garden as the kind of center of gravity of the film.
We would start every section in my garden as I had done with the research. And the chapters in the book tend to start in my garden, then go out into the world and then come back. And so I was going to travel. I was going to be more of a host than I ended up. And what happened, and this was the down side of the delay, was I got busy with other things and moved to the West Coast and took a job teaching. And it became a little less possible for me to go to all the amazing places that...
There're a lot of up sides to that though, because you live here now.
Yes, now I live here. That's right.
That's a big up side.
But I have a very different kind of garden.
Yes. So, next question?
Well you know when you told me you wanted to make a film of this, in some ways I could sort of get it. It's a visual subject. But there was so much about the texture of this book and the way it was written that didn't say “movie” to me. If you've read the book, it's full of digressions. It's full of philosophical speculations. It's got a lot of abstraction and it's not linear. It kind of jumps all over the place and doesn't have one narrative. It's got four narratives. So I'm curious to know what you saw in it that said to you that this could work?
Well first, the title was a great title. And there's a lot in a good title. But secondly, the whole notion of looking at the world from a plant's point of view was something that nobody had really done before. It's very provocative and intriguing, and the stories of the plants themselves were so surprising, as I hope you see a little bit in the film, that it seemed like a great opportunity to make the film. But we also had to recognize from the beginning that the challenge of taking the book and turning it into a movie is precisely that, first, the plants don't move and they don't talk. As main characters, that makes it tough.
The most interesting thing about the book is the chance it gives you to get inside Michael's head as he's thinking about these plants, and musing about them, and it is the philosophical nature of the book that's interesting. And that doesn't work on television because it's just too ethereal. So we had to figure out a way to overcome that. And what we decided to do was really to make the plants the subjects of the story, rather than it being a film about what's going on in Michael's mind. We needed to make it a film about the natural histories of these plants. And from that, a series of other decisions kind of cascaded somewhat naturally, although not entirely.
But there was a real shift in perspective and in your role because then instead of traveling all over the world with us, we made you sit in a studio for two days in Berkeley, which was a bit of a marathon. We actually interviewed over two separate days, two plants a day, for, I think, six hours on tape each day.
They were very, very long days.
And out of that, we distilled what survived onto the screen.
But what about visually, what were some of the devices you used to suggest that we were looking at things from the plant's point of view?
Well, we wanted to try to take that idea and translate it as literally as we could. No, literally is probably the wrong word, but we wanted to use that as an impetus for the style of shooting that we brought to it.
Filmmaking is the furthest thing from a solitary act that there is. I was taking a look at the credits earlier today for the film, and I think there were something like 50 or 60 people who were involved in this film. You know nobody makes a film alone. Somebody like me just gets the first credit, but there are a lot of other people who make this possible. And, in this case, two of those people were cinematographers named John Chater and Vicente Franco, both of whom are from the Bay Area, both of whom are really gifted and brilliant cinematographers. So they brought a lot of the look to the film.
We tried intentionally to shoot through the plants and to try to make it a story about relationships visually. But one of the things I was thinking when watching it here tonight—and I want to thank Sydney Goldstein too, who runs City Arts & Lectures, for hosting this screening—because this was a real treat—after having worked on a film for so long, to be able to see it in such a setting with such spectacular quality is really a gift. So Sydney, I'm not sure where you are right now, but thank you very much for making this possible.
The interesting thing about cameras is that they can see things that we don't. And one of the things we really tried hard to do was to see the plants in a way you don't ordinarily see them when you look at them in nature. So we wanted to take them out of their natural environment some, but we also tried to look at them very close up. We used a lot of macro photography in some cases. You saw a lot of that with the marijuana plant in particular, where you just don't see that resin...
...That was shot with particular loving care, I think.
Well let's just say that John Chater, who grew up in Scotland and had not had much exposure to marijuana plants before this… in those grow rooms, those lights are very hot. And there were vapors and after being in there all day, there was a certain grogginess...
That explains a lot.
...that set in. But we did try to find ways to look at the plants in ways that we wouldn't otherwise see them or hadn't seen them before.
Do you have a question for me?
When we first started getting at this, and you tried to imagine what the book would look like translated into film, what did you imagine and how does this meet that expectation or differ from it?
Oh, well I would just say the film completely exceeds my expectation for what I thought could be done. I mean it really does. You did things I couldn't do. You went places I couldn't go. There were places I was able to go you couldn't go, because I had poisoned the well.
Because you had been there before.
Yes. Like Monsanto corporate headquarters. Sorry about that. There was a long dance about whether Monsanto would allow the film crew to come and interview. And Mike worked really hard to get them on camera talking about these issues. And in the end they decided not to. But you know, I didn't know what to expect. I mean, one of the things you should know is that I worked in documentary briefly. And both of us, after working in print for a couple of years, got into documentary. I worked on a couple of films also. And I found the whole process incredibly frustrating. I found that the raising of the money, the number of people you had to marshal, the organizational challenge was more than I could bear. And it drove me back into a room with a word processor where I could do everything without getting anyone to cooperate except an editor.
I was shocked and very pleasantly surprised at the result in so many ways. I mean, I think it really exceeds my expectation. I think there is a layer to the book that was very hard to do. I don't see Friedrich Nietzsche in here, or Apollo, or Dionysus, some of my favorite characters from the book but…
They wouldn't do interviews.
But on balance, it was thrilling to see it on the screen, it really was. And this is material a lot of which I'd forgotten. It's been nine years since I've thought about this stuff.
Well with any luck, we'll give it a whole new life.
Why don't we bring up the house lights and when we do I'd like to first…there are people with microphones around and if you stand up or signal to them, they'll come to you. And we'd be happy to answer your questions. But while the lights are up, perhaps we could just recognize Valentine Kass for really making this possible. Where is she?
Could we also ask anyone who worked on the film who's here to stand up?
Yes, anyone who's worked on the film? There is somebody right there. Jeremy Belzer-Adams.. Kiki Kapany.
Don Bernier and Gale Huddleson our brilliant editors upstairs.
So, first question.
First question comes from the back of the orchestra to your right.
Good evening. Absolutely fabulous film. I haven't read the book, but my wife who's sitting next to me has. So I'll get the real scoop from her. My question tonight is, and I must admit I'm sort of awfully out of date on this given the national dialogue for the last eight years, but my question is, a lot of what I remember about bio-engineering of plants at the commercial level has to do or had to do with feeding a growing human population. And that one of the arguments was that the only way we could sustain life on the plant, human life on the plant, was to produce food more efficiently. Where are we with that argument now? Does that still hold water? Is that still what's driving what's going on?
That's a great question. And it is the main justification that's being used for the pushing of biotechnology, that to feed a growing population, we need this technology. It's the same argument, by the way, that's been used at every step of the way with the industrialization of agriculture. It was used with the development of pesticides, and with every technology, that argument is used.
Here is the issue. Maybe it's right, but there is no evidence based on the current track record of GM crops to believe that it is. You probably assume that these amazing technological marvels are more productive in some ways. And the kind of surprise is, they're not. That's not why farmers plant GM crops. Thus far, with one very narrow exception, they produce the same or less on a per acre basis as the crops they replace. And in fact most of the gains in yield over the past 10 or 20 years that we've had in corn and soy and wheat have come from conventional breeding. So the question then arises, well if you don't get more yield, why would farmers pay extra to do this? And we're talking really about BT crops, the ones you saw, and the potatoes, and the cotton, and then Roundup ready crops, which is another…and in fact, 80 percent of GM seeds are Roundup ready.
These are plants engineered to withstand herbicide. And the film sort of left the impression that GM crops mean less pesticide. And that may be true in BT crops, but in fact, exactly the opposite is true in Roundup ready crops. More pesticide is sprayed on those crops. So why do farmers plant them? Well, they make the farmer's job easier. They allow one farmer to take care of more land because you don't have to worry about the pest and rather than bringing your tractor over or multiple sprayings of herbicide, you can just kind of shower the whole field with Roundup.
And therefore, you can grow more. You can get bigger. You can consolidate. That's not the same as efficiency. It may improve what one farmer can produce, but it does not yet improve what one acre can produce. I think it's a rhetorical argument that doesn't have a lot of substance behind it yet. Now the industry promises by the year 2050, that they will double the yield of crop plants. Let’s see if they can do it. But I think it's very important to evaluate GM based on what it actually does rather than promises that have very often proven not to hold up. Ten years ago, when I was first reporting and I was at Monsanto, they were telling me, “Oh, BT, Roundup, this is just the first generation. We have got crops that will produce their own fertility, that have other proteins to defend themselves against insects, that won’t need as much water, that will be able to survive in saline conditions, and others that have enhanced nutritional benefits. You'll see, in a few years they'll be here.” And it was sold to us on the basis of these promises. Well, those crops are not here. I don't know what the problem is.
This question comes from the center of the orchestra.
First, thank you so much for the film and the book and also one of your other books, The Omnivore's Dilemma, which is one of the most important books I've ever read, truly. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions. One is, how much is being done in the U.S. to stop or to slow down the use of monocultures to increase diversity? And also just a little quick, personal kind of question that might be relevant to other people which is, what kind of crop would you think someone could grow on a small piece of land that would be highly productive financially that's legal? The other thing about your work that I wanted to say is incredible, is what you said at the end in the film, which is that everything ultimately is interconnected. And that's the underlying message which, if gotten and understood, will shift everything in the world. So I really appreciate that too.
Well thank you. I'll try to remember all three questions. That was two questions and a statement I think, right? What is being done to get us away from monoculture? Well a lot actually. I mean even in the years since I was writing about this, the explosion of alternative ways of producing food, the rise of organics, the rise of really complex polycultures not only in this area, but all across the country, there's this ferment of experiment going on and people are learning other ways to do it. People like Mike Heath. There are Mike Heaths all over this country right now. And so it's a very exciting time. There really is a movement to change the way we grow food. Is it about to replace industrial agriculture? No, it's far from it. It needs a lot more research and development. It needs a lot more support from the government. Basically the government is still promoting monocultures, by and large. This is what our subsidies do. This is what our crop research does. That is really still the system. But we have more alternatives today then we've had for a very long time. So that's very exciting. In terms of a productive crop, without knowing a lot, well first, I'm not an extension agent. I'm kind of far from it. And you should call your extension agent. It's a very valuable service of the United States Government. But it depends on so many factors: your land, the climate, all this kind of stuff. So any advice I gave you would be next to worthless. So call the USDA extension agent.
I would also add though that Mike Heath's potatoes are more profitable per acre than Ryan Cranney's. Ryan Cranney manages to survive because he grows so many acres. But the profit per acre is really marginal. One of the points that Michael makes in the film that's really crucial is that there is a connection between what consumers demand and what farmers grow. And people like Ryan Cranney are growing Russet Burbanks, not because he particularly likes Russet Burbanks, but because that's what they can sell into the market. And people like Mike Heath are able to grow a variety of organic potatoes profitably now because there's a growing demand for them. So I think there is a clear connection between what people want to eat and what farmers are going to grow.
Yeah, if we demand diversity in the varieties we eat, there’ll be more diversity on the land, no question about it.
The next question comes from the top of the balcony to your left.
First, I wanted to say, that was an excellent adaptation of an excellent book. And this question is directed to Michael, the author of the book. When you chose the four plants that we read about in the book and then saw tonight, I'm sure there was a plethora of other plants that you probably considered. And I wanted to first ask what the selection criteria was that you used to dwindle it down to the four that you chose and, especially when there's other crops like rice and corn, which you did cover in Omnivore's Dilemma? And then more interestingly, for the ones that you didn't choose, what were some interesting factoids or stories that didn't come to light that you could maybe share with the audience?
You’re looking for the sequel. It was hard to narrow it down, because there were so many good candidates. And my criteria were, well first I was going to have more chapters in this book. I was going to have six or eight chapters, because four chapters in a book is kind of a small number. So there were some others, you know, sitting on the bench that I was hoping to get to. But as I started writing, I really enjoyed the form that was evolving, which was to take these and to go deeper rather than wider and to explore these plants from so many different perspectives: natural history, psychology and brain science, philosophy, poetry. And one of the things I enjoyed doing in the book was layering different perspectives and not privileging anyone, not saying the scientists have the answers to this.
Sometimes the musicians know more than the scientists or get there, or the poets get there first. And so in the process of layering all these different perspectives as I did in the book, I was up to 100 page chapters, so I had to cut some plants. The other thing I wanted to do was make sure that each plant corresponded to an important human desire, which is something that I think was really underscored well in the film.
So I wanted one flower to do beauty. And I went through the different flowers. I was not particularly attached to tulips. I thought about roses, which I like a lot better. But I had written a chapter on roses in my first book, Second Nature, and I thought, did I want to go over that again? And then orchids were the other obvious choice, a flower we've been deeply involved with. And I thought about doing that. But I didn't have any personal connection to orchids. I didn't have a first person story I could tell. I had never grown them. I wasn't particularly enamored of them, whereas I had been paid by the bulb to plant tulips as a kid. And they had been kind of part of my childhood in the landscape I grew up in. I wanted a flower with a great, rich history, and the tulip had Tulipmania. I was writing this during the Internet bubble and it was a really good time to think about speculative bubbles. So it was factors like that. And I could have done corn instead of the potato, but Monsanto was willing to give me genetically modified potatoes to grow in my garden. I was able to grow them and see what actually happened.
So there's all those contingencies. As it happened, I did get to write about corn as you mentioned in Omnivore's Dilemma. And I did a very Botany Of Desire take on that. And just this month, in fact, I published an article on orchids, where I finally got to explore them. And there are plenty of factoids there about the bizarre sexual practices of orchids that are far too perverse for public television.
...Or to talk about here, either, right?
This question comes from the back of orchestra, right.
I think the film was a tremendous adaptation of the book. And I just wanted to ask a small question about a part that sparked my curiosity. I've read lots of Mr. Pollan's works and I hadn't thought very much about the use of pest or plant control in organic farming. I know you mentioned that organic farmers sometimes put BT directly on their crops. So I was hoping you could talk a little about that and then more generally, methods that organic farmers use that would allow the United States to have much more organic farming, feeding many more people, thinking about alternatives to chemical pesticides.
Okay. Well there's a lot of work being done, both in a kind of informal way amongst organic farmers who do incredible amount of research and development on their own without any help from institutions. But now increasingly, you have some institutions working on biological control of pests and having very good success. One of the things that strikes me when I go to organic farms, is I expect to see them replacing one for one the conventional pesticide with an organic alternative so that they would use BT spray, which some of them do use and they're allowed to use it, it's an organic control, or sulfur to control diseases and all this kind of stuff.
I'm struck at how many of the organic farmers I’ve visited, when I ask them, “what do you use to control pests?” And they'll say “Nothing.” “Well, how do you deal with it?” Well they deal with it through lots of different crops. It's only when you've got a huge population of the same species that you have this banquet for diseases and pests. And if you vary crops, even if you change the variety of rice you grow every 10 rows, diseases do not always, or are unable to, cross from one variety to another.
So the potential of diversifying fields to simply eliminate the need for pest control is large. Now you're still going to have years where you get hit. And one of the things you notice about organic farms, is they don't freak out when some of their plants get eaten. They understand that they're going to lose about five or 10 percent of the crop to the insects, whereas conventional farmers tend to react strongly and try to wipe it out, because they know once it gets started, they've got a problem.
The organic farmer knows that once it gets started, it's going to hit a natural limit of the crop in the next field. I remember Mike Heath telling me that one of his tricks to avoid Colorado potato beetles is, “Well I do wheat every other year with potatoes, right?” He said, “I found if I put wheat in before I do potatoes, or after I do potatoes, it confuses the Colorado potato beetle. It comes up and it's in a wheat field. And it doesn't know what to do. Problem solved.” So there is so much we don't know about entomology. There is so much knowledge we could harness. And the problem is that we don't put a lot of money into figuring that out, because the money in crop research is in creating new products that you can sell to farmers; it’s in creating intellectual property. And we have to realize that a really clever rotation is just as important a technology as a Roundup ready seed. It's just as powerful. It's just hard to get rich off of it.
What’s interesting is that some of the money for entomology research is coming from companies like Monsanto, which fund it because they have to in order to grow genetically engineered crops. So some of the work that people like Bruce Tabashnik are doing is really made possible because of federal laws that require the funding of research that will answer the question about what kind of impact are genetically engineered crops really going to have? And the real answer is that we don’t yet know.
The next question comes from the right, middle of the balcony.
You touch on the angiosperm. I wonder if you're going to do anything about the paleontology of plants and the effect on development of human culture? When I present the various skulls of ancient man at the Academy of Science, the question comes up, “What were they eating?” Has this ever come into mind as something you might venture into?
I'm very interested in diet, obviously. And I'm very interested in how we co-evolve with plants. There are fascinating changes that happen with changes in diet, the biggest one of course being the creation of agriculture. There was a revolution in the human diet when we began eating all this grain. And initially it was a disaster. Of course if you look at early skeletons from the birth of agriculture—and Jared Diamond has written about this—you know we got smaller, we got sicker. We had all the kinds of chronic diseases we're now having, but not exactly the same ones. So these changes in the human diet show up in the fossil record in all sorts of very interesting ways. Whether I'll go deeper into that, I don't know. I think we've got time for one more question.
Yeah, this will be the last question. This comes from the center of the orchestra.
Thank you. How do you distinguish between genetic engineering achieved by conventional breeding and by modern lab practices? How do you draw that line?
Well, it's a good question. And very often, people say, “Well, isn't this all genetic engineering? Didn't we genetically engineer the wheat plant to have this large seed head that doesn't shatter? And aren't we genetically doing biotechnology when we ferment?” In the broadest sense, you could say that's true. They're biotechnologies. They're technologies involving life. But I think that we cross a kind of Rubicon when we begin taking genes from one species and inserting them in another, and that this doesn't happen in nature except in the case of viruses communicating diseases.
And that is a new power that we have not had as breeders. Hybridizers, people who breed plants, are selecting from genetic possibilities presented by the genome of that species. There is a limit on all the different things a potato can do. It's extraordinary how much a potato can do. You saw what a potato can do: The different colors, the different shapes, the different textures, the different tastes; same with an apple.
But the breeder is selecting from a pallet determined by the plant. It's very different when you can take a gene from as far away as a flounder and put it in that plant. And there is something less orderly too about that process; when genes are combined naturally, they shuffle themselves in a certain orderly way. And if you've ever seen the first generation of genetically modified potatoes or any other crop, it's full of freaks. You see these absolutely bizarre freaks. They reject most of them and look for the ones that are doing what they hope and look normal. And it makes you realize that this is a different way of doing business.
Now that's not to say it's wrong or it's evil necessarily. It's only to recognize that it's momentous. And if you're going to make a momentous change in life, in the way we do business, it must be approached with great caution and careful regulation. And my biggest argument with GM is that that has not been the case, that we've approached it in a very blithe way. It may work out fine and we may end up with a real contribution to human history. Or we may have serious problems on our hands. And where those problems may come from are very hard to predict. So I do think it is a radical new technology. That is not to damn it, it’s just to argue for approaching it with much more care than we've been doing. Thank you, Michael. And thank you.
And thank you. I'd like to thank City Arts again for hosting the night and making this event possible. I'd like to thank all of you for coming. And I want to save my biggest thanks for last, which is to my children, and especially my wife, Kiki, for putting up with everything that I go through in the course of making these films and for making it possible. So thank you.
And to my wife, Judith, for coming, and for putting up for much longer.