Food & Hubris

Stem-sellers: Fiona Watt, Mark Post

The last of the Feed Your Mind lectures I was able to attend at Kings College was Creating Meat with Stem Cell Technology, a presentation by Mark Post of Maastricht University. He was behind the “stem burgers” launched with great media attention last summer. No risk they will be hitting store shelves soon as each burger, he said, cost €250,000 to produce.

It was a fairly technical talk: Post explained the constraints of working with stem cells to create food. For example, the most popular cell culture medium in labs nowadays is derived from mouse tumours, and this would not sound, well, appetizing for food production. Instead he’s going to try using the protein fraction left over from algae-based biofuel production. Ultimately he’s aiming for a source of stem cells that doesn’t require bovine input – since he is trying to make cattle extinct, and he’s keen on sustainability. He seemed genuinely hurt that his work has been dubbed “frankenfood” and “lab burger”.

Because his aim in doing this work, he felt, was in the greater good. He wanted to raise awareness and offer solutions to the problems of food security in a time of mushrooming population growth. Humans, he said, have a taste for meat; in order to provide it, we must rethink our unsustainable methods of growing it, so that we can devote more of our dwindling arable land to growing fruits and vegetables.

There is so much wrong with his thinking I hardly know where to start. Firstly and most importantly (one might think), the nutritional value of cells grown in a medium consisting of amino acids, vitamins and sugar will never be comparable to that of food from animals raised on plants, water and sunshine. But his talk never touched on nutritional concerns.

Have humans learned nothing from our extensive attempts to mimic nature? Think margarine. Think beta-carotene supplements. Think high fructose corn syrup. Still, we’re facing a generation of humans who have lost their ability to cook, to identify foods, to taste the difference between real and artificial food flavours, or to take responsibility for their food choices. He cited a survey of Dutch people, 75% of whom had said they might be willing to give stem burgers a go. To those people, artificially grown meat might be an acceptable thing to put in their mouths, but it won’t properly nourish their brains and bodies: we will have to wait to see what the deficiencies do to our species.

Secondly, while current methods of intensive livestock production are certainly wrong and unsustainable, using arable land for industrial fruit and vegetable production has been shown repeatedly to be the least sustainable method of feeding a growing world. Post did not appear to be aware of the damage wrought to topsoil, ecosystems or microbial life by monocropping and large-scale agriculture. Nor did he give any sense he knew of better alternatives like permaculture or grasslands management.

But it is not in Post’s interests to know these things. A vascular biologist, his job is obtaining grants to do lab research. And he has been successful in doing this, with two years’ worth of funds in hand to try to eliminate animal-based cells from “meat” production; to improve the taste, smell and texture of stem cell “meat”; to bring down production costs; and to work on the regulatory path needed to approve this as a novel food.

The best and final question of the session came from a chef in the audience, who wondered if this substance from stem cells was going to be to meat as infant formula is to breast milk. Post did not seem to understand the question and with spectacular hubris said in fact he hoped they could make this product better than meat by isolating and removing the harmful qualities of it which cause, for example, colon cancer — once they figure out what those qualities are.

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London – food & drugs

Mystery revellers at Westminster

Gorgeous springtime weather here in the UK, which has earned it after a sodden couple of months. Last weekend it hit 17c on Sunday which brought all the picnickers out in force. Primrose Hill was littered with everyone and his dog, and the market at Camden Lock was seething. It’s not the market that was during my day, but I was pleased to see a few things have endured, like Marine Ices and Belgo Noord. But the market itself – once a jumble of knick-knacks, housewares, jewelery, and oddities with a bit of food – has become one big street food extravaganza with little else on offer. If you’re hungry and willing to eat and run, it’s the place to be on a weekend. But otherwise, other markets.

Camden Regents Canal






I’ve managed to arrive in time to attend some of the free lectures on offer at Kings College London in its Feed Your Mind series. I went to the well-attended first session, Obese London, to learn about obesity rates and their consequences for Londoners. These are highest among immigrant populations, whose diet plummets away from traditional foods into heavy consumption of the worst foods (chips, sugary drinks, chocolate, sweets and processed foods) the longer they’ve been in the country. And of course these deliver obesity and its associated chronic illnesses including diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and higher mortality.






Yesterday I headed to KCL’s Guy’s Campus, in the shadow of the Shard, and arrived as the Tuesday farmers market was underway. The afternoon’s entertainment was called Hot & Spicy Drugs, which focused somewhat disappointingly and pretty much exclusively on capsaicin (the heat in chilli peppers) and its possible uses in pharmacology. I’d been hoping for a bit more talk about more of the hot & spicy foods and their uses both traditional and pharmacological, but I learned some interesting things. Birds lack the receptor protein that gives chillies their heat; drugs that block this receptor in humans have been developed but are not used since they also block our ability to feel external heat, which seems a pretty undesirable side effect. Applied topically, capsaicin (after an introductory period of discomfort) has a desensitizing effect which can help a lot of kinds of neuralgia and neuropathy. Capsaicin creams and patches have been found to be helpful in relieving pain associated with arthritis, shingles, psoriasis and a number of other conditions. And we got to do a taste test with randomly assigned chocolates with different amounts of chilli in them; as might have been expected, the perception of heat varied wildly among tasters.

Tomorrow I’m off to hear the creator of meat from stem cells, Professor Mark Post of Maastricht University, extoll the virtues of stemburgers. Yum.

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So long Seattle

Amy Tan book-signing queue

Nearly a week has slid by since I waved goodbye to Seattle in the drizzly rain, my drizzly cold wreaking its final revenge as I worked my way through as many in-flight movies as I could en route to London last Sunday night. To clear the decks for reports from the UK, here’s a short and inadequate summary of the end of my AWP.

The last day of the conference was a bit up and down. I had been taking things easy, perhaps too easy — so missed the first session entirely and arrived late to the second – which I left in any case as it was just not what I wanted to hear. And the presenters were following the maddening habit of refusing to stand at the podium, rendering them invisible to all but those in the front row. It’s always hard to pick panels that are what you expect, but this was the first I’d given up on.

However, the last session of the day was very much what I’d been looking for: Phillip Lopate again, and this time in good form on  “Lightening Up the Dark: The Role of Humor in Memoir”. He was entertaining and erudite, quoting from Max Beerbohm here and Charles Lamb there, and in good pedagogical form about the many types of humour (dictional, mock pedantry, self deprecation and more). He read a bit from his own writings before Joe Mackall took his place on the podium, quipping that following Lopate was like being Danny DeVito accompanying Brad Pitt to a singles bar: “they’re not there for you but there’s decent overflow.” Mimi Schwartz brought the house down with an account of her husband’s leavening wit when helping her look for her mislaid breast prosthesis by calling “here titty titty.” And Suzanne Greenberg gave wry insights into how she guides students into using humour to personalize their first person writing, and the power of the “laughter of the truth revealed.”

It was a pretty good panel, though one of the panelists should really have presented his piece instead at the session I’d attended earlier, “Telling it All: Boundaries in Creative Nonfiction” in which the panelists each read pieces they felt crossed a line of some kind, and then talked about what they would and would not say in a piece of writing. It really comes down to your willingness to define and defend what is your story, it seems. One of the panelists maintained that his story had to be told regardless of how the other characters might be revealed in it; others felt a measure of queasiness at shedding poor light on parents and friends, or unfolding uncomfortable details. Emily Fox Gordon observed she’s made a kind of fetish out of being self-savaging – perhaps to show others she’s as hard on herself as they may feel she is on the people she writes about. Ann McCutcheon insists the question “whose story is it” must be respected, but warns that readers may feel that the memoir is the whole and only truth of a story.

And that was about all I could manage to take in for that day.

One small corner of the AWP book fair

The very promising evening reading by Sharon Olds and Jane Hirschfield was, by all reports, a stunningly moving event, but I was too tired and sniffly to make it. And I have heard both before so missing it was relatively less irksome. I may have used up the last of my resources in a belated final sweep of the book fair – a boggling affair featuring thousands of exhibitors, most packing up or gone by then. Ah well, I had determined not to weigh my bags down for the onward travels, so just as well. And after a delightful supper (water buffalo burger?!) with a gang of writers, opted to return to the flat and pack up ready for the morrow’s journey.




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AWP Seattle

Writers on escalatorEntering day 3 of AWP 2014 – and the first overcast day we’ve had. Sun shone on the 12,000 writers toiling up and down the escalators of the Washington State Convention Centre, on their way to windowless rooms and intellectual overload. I’ve been concentrating on panel discussions to do with the less lofty aspects of a writer’s life: preparing book proposals, building audience, marketing strategies, grappling with the onslaught of social and other media that are required tools of the trade nowadays. I’ve been to sessions on creative nonfiction – head’s a whirl with present tense, past tense, first and third person points of view.

So far have barely managed a peek at the book fair – a couple of thousand booths I think – Kitty Lewis, Brick Booksfeaturing Canada’s own Brick Books, with Kitty Lewis presiding. And made it to only one reading, last night’s, when I had a tough choice to make: Robert Hass, Eva Saulitis, and Gary Snyder or Gretel Ehrlich with Barry Lopez, and opted for the latter as I hadn’t had a chance to hear Lopez before, a good champion of environmental thinking.

Lopez was not the only creative nonfiction superstar here. It was standing room only for Thursday’s The I or the Eye: The Narrator’s Role in Nonfiction, which featured Phillip Lopate, Robert Root, Lia Purpura and Michael Steinberg (Elyssa East had been unable to make it, though the panelists seemed united in their admiration for her book Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town). I was fading at that point – a poorly-timed cold – but Lia’s poet’s sensitivities spoke well to me (be more alert to qualities and increments of thought than focus on which voice is best for telling the story, she advised). The general gist, I suspect, was that the narrative voice depends on the story being told. But it’s always good to have erudite spins on that thought.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time at panels about a writer’s use of new media. The one on Twitter was, ironically, booked into a room with no Wifi access, which hampered the reportage from the resident tweeter. In fact chairs have been set aside in every session for registered Twitter users: check #AWP14 for full coverage. People at the conference have the luxury of a tweet wall which should be flowing with the continuous fullsomeness of what’s been said here, but it was stationary the couple of times I’d passed it. Time enough for all that later. On with the final day’s sessions.

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Saving BC’s agricultural land

In a day parenthesized by chilly rain, the sun decided to shine on today’s Food for the Future rally at the BC Legislature. For an hour or so, a swelling crowd of young, old and four-footed fans of food and farming milled about, drinking free coffee, eating free apples and nibbling free granola bars. Up on the stage, speakers called for action against wrong-headed changes to BC’s Agricultural Land Reserve. The “father of the ALR”, Harold Steves, as well as farmer-dynamo Nathalie Chambers, food-broadcaster Jon Steinman and others were there to explain the need for action.

Harold Steves

And here’s the plan we were there to protest: BC’s government intends to put the administration of the Agricultural Land Reserve – which protects farmland from real estate and natural resources developers alike – in the hands of the oil and gas industry. The government claims to be committed to protecting our most productive farmland, but as any farming fool knows, “unproductive” farmland isn’t disposable: it is an integral part of sustainable farming. That “unproductive” land nurtures native vegetation, protects waterways and sequesters carbon. It provides habitat for the non-voting, non-human lives in our ecosystem: the greatly endangered pollinators of our crops and wild foods; the dwindling populations of fish, fowl and fur in our colonized landscapes; the irreplaceable minerals, mycorrhizae and bacterial life in our soil.

Anyone with concerns about this is urged to write directly to the one person who can stop this, BC’s oil & gas-industry-loving premier, Christy Clark. You can email her at, or even better, send her a letter:

The Honourable Christy Clark
Premier of British Columbia
Box 9041. Station PROV GOVT
Victoria, BC  V8W 9E1

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