10
May
10

the root of the pill

In Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, Sidney Mintz identifies the 19th century commercialization of sugar beets as “the first important seizure by temperate agriculture of what were previously the productive capacities of … tropical region[s].”

This tidbit stuck with me, and I’ve spent some time trying to come up with other examples. Often, it’s temperate chemistry that undercuts tropical agriculture, but I think that’s within the spirit of Mintz’s comment. Indigo, natural rubber, and palm oil (replaced as an industrial lubricant by petroleum products) have been undercut this way.

This morning, Richard Grijalva brought the case of barbasco and the birth control pill to my attention. Barbasco is the wild yam indigenous to Mexico from which chemists learned in the 1940s to synthesize the steroid hormones that made the Pill possible. Gabriela Soto Laveaga’s Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill tells how the Mexican government encouraged peasants to cultivate barbasco for this new use, and then to use the new product to regulate their own population growth.

Today no one–whether in the pharmacy or in the campo–remembers this part of the Pill’s history. Which reminds me of a another tidbit from Mintz. Writing about the temperate world’s shift from a preference for the whitest (and therefore purest) sugars to browner, less-refined varieties, Mintz notes that the latter were once traditional foods of the poor but are now “expensive relics of the past … [on] the tables of the rich, … now produced in modern ways that make money for people quite different from those who formerly produced them.” I wonder if barbasco’s involvement with science has given its consumption a similar trajectory, and if Laveaga’s book has anything to tell us about it.

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2 Responses to “the root of the pill”


  1. May 10, 2010 at 10:23

    Jungle Laboratories sounds like a book I should check out at some point. The Mintz book is my all time favorite book. I’m not sure if its importance to me comes because it was such an early read in my Latin American history education or in spite of that, but it did more to change my understanding of the world than any other single book I’ve read before or since.


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