Mushrooms will save the world

Star Trek’s secret weapon: a scientist with a mushroom fetish bent on saving the planet
Researcher says he’s just a ‘messenger’ for the mushrooms
By Yvette Brend, CBC News Posted: Dec 24, 2017 7:00 AM PT Last Updated: Dec 24, 2017 11:40 AM PT

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist, Jack Webster City Mike award winner 2017. @ybrend

On Star Trek: Discovery, the character Lieutenant Paul Stamets is an “astromycologist” — a mushroom expert in outer space who is passionate about the power of fungi.

Stamets is actually named after a real U.S. scientist who spends his downtime tramping through the forests of B.C.’s Cortes Island. The 62-year-old looks nothing like his blond-haired TV counterpart, but he’s just as enamoured with fungi.

In fact, he believes mushrooms can help save the planet.

Over 40 years, Stamets has pioneered methods for using mushrooms to do everything from clean up oil spills to save disappearing bees by boosting their immune systems.

But he’s just as excited about Star Trek’s potential to inspire people to create some of the science they see presented in screen — even if it does seem a bit fantastic. So were flip phones when people first saw Spock’s, he said.

“What I love about Star Trek is that we can actually set the stage for science fact,” said Stamets.


Science behind the fiction
Amory Lovins, chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, said Stamets’ genius lies in finding extraordinary uses for mushrooms, often creating applications that read more like a Gene Roddenberry script than reality.

In a 2008 TED Talk, Stamets explained how fungi can be used to “save the world” by cleaning polluted soil, replacing toxic insecticides and even treating viruses.

He invented paradigm-shifting uses for fungal extracts, including some that have the ability to boost immunity and fight virus. Stamets discovered that extracts from a rare, gnarled mushroom found in old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest protect against smallpox.

It caught the attention of the U.S. defence department’s BioShield program for testing at a top-security lab, where it saw some success. The military fears smallpox could be used as a biological weapon by terrorists.

It’s not the first time the military turned to mushrooms. In the pursuit of creating so-called superhumans, the military has used Navy SEALs to test Cordyceps sinensis fungus (or Mysterious Caterpillar Fungus), which is used in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicines to help increase physical stamina and fight antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Eventually, Stamets’ research and reputation piqued the interest of Hollywood.

The writers of Star Trek: Discovery were stuck in a plot rut, and decided to call Stamets for help. They were so inspired by the nature and breadth of his work, they wanted to incorporate it into the show’s narrative — and created the TV character Paul Stamets, portrayed by actor Anthony Rapp.

Paul Stamets cabin on Cortes Island
Long before Stamets worked with Star Trek, he built a dream getaway on Cortes Island in homage, in part, to the Starship Enterprise. (Bill Linton)

Stamets said he was thrilled when the producers came calling, because he also happens to be a Trekkie. In fact, his B.C. cabin was built as a homage to the Starship Enterprise, and he sent the writers photos.

“They were blown away — roaring with laughter,” said Stamets.

Other television shows have incorporated his name and work into their plots, including The Invasion (with Nicole Kidman) and Hannibal, where the Stamets character is a serial killer who grows mushrooms on dead victims in his backyard.

Stamets was impressed that Star Trek producers asked his permission to use his name and have made mushrooms such a key part of the show. He told the writers about the giant prototaxites plants that grew 420 million years ago, and described how fungi could help create a habitable environment for humans. Stamets said fungi were the first organisms on land and created a base for soil, plants and eventually animals.

“They are the foundation of the food web. Thirty per cent of the soil underneath your feet is composed of fungal mass, he said.

His transformation
Stamets believes references to his work in pop culture will help people stop ignoring fungi.

His own obsession with fungi began with a harrowing experience at age 19, when he ate an entire bag of magic mushrooms, which contain a hallucinogen. While high, he climbed a tree in a violent thunderstorm and got stuck. He admits he ingested too many mushrooms.

“I knew nothing about dosing then,” said Stamets.

Paul Stamets and Anthony Rapp
The real Stamets poses with his on-screen avatar. (Fungi Perfecti/Facebook)

But he said the frightening experience had an unintended benefit. It cured his childhood stutter and launched his quest to understand fungi, which led to subsequent epiphanies.

“I’m just a messenger for the mycelium,” he said, referring to the network of fungal filaments under the soil that form the largest organism on earth. Mycelium can be found in every forest, but the biggest one he knows of is a massive, 970-hectare mass — bigger than 1,600 football fields — in an Oregon forest.

Stamets believes this network “communicates,” not unlike a fungal internet. The filaments transfer nutrients and information, and even sabotage unwelcome plants by spreading toxins.

“We walk upon these mycelial landscapes,” he said. “Literally underneath our feet are the solutions that are so desperately needed today, and yet we are Neanderthals with nuclear weapons.”

Eric Rasmussen, a Stanford-educated medical doctor, describes Stamets as a “savant” and helped him research the use of fungi to clean up radioactive waste.

“A lot of humanity doesn’t care that much for fungus,” said Rasmussen, the CEO of Infinitum Humanitarian Systems in Seattle. “We worry about them and slice them and drown them in butter, but we don’t really understand what they are doing.”

Mushroom vanguard
This fall, Stamets spoke at a California conference about “microdosing,” a trend among some athletes and computer coders that involves ingesting tiny amounts of the psychedelic substances in magic mushroom to improve performance by enhancing perception.

Fungi that looks like the Star ship enterprise
Stamets was eager to see fungi featured in Star Trek: Discovery because he believes raising awareness about the lowly mushroom may help save the planet. (Fungi Perfecti/Facebook)

But Stamets would prefer to talk about bees. He said watching them drink liquid off fungi twigged him to the immune-boosting power of mushrooms.

“Things I had spoken about for a number of years are now getting a lot of traction,” said Stamets, who is the founder of Fungi Perfecti, a company that markets everything from garden products and mushroom supplements to a children’s book.

Stamets is thrilled Star Trek will ignite interest in his underfunded field, but he’s quiet about one thing.

Ask him to reveal upcoming plot twists and suddenly, he’s as silent as a shiitake.

Fantino Wrong? This is News?

In decades of policing and politics, I can’t recall a single time Fantino has been right, so why should this be different.

Marc Emery was right; Julian Fantino was wrong
Stephen Maher: The activist faces a huge fine and will be locked out of the legal weed business. The former cop is set to cash in.

Stephen Maher

In September 2011, Conservative MP and former OPP commissioner Julian Fantino stood in the House of Commons to urge MPs to vote for the Conservatives’ Safe Streets and Communities Act, which, among other things, increased mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana offences, including six months for possessing six plants.

“It is critically important to law enforcement officers if we want them to do the job that they are mandated to do,” he said. “It is critical to the courts and it is critical to society, especially to vulnerable people.”

At the time Fantino spoke those words, Marc Emery was living in the Medium Federal Correctional Institution in Yazoo County, Louisiana, doing five years for selling marijuana seeds through the mail, part of a decades-long crusade against the laws that made it illegal to grow and smoke marijuana.

I believe Emery was right about marijuana and Fantino was wrong, and it seems that Fantino now has had a change of heart, because last month he announced that he plans to sell medical marijuana in a business he founded with former RCMP deputy commissioner Raf Souccar.

Emery, who finished his sentence in 2014 and returned to Canada, is not able to enter the legal marijuana business because of his criminal convictions. On Monday, he and his wife, Jodie Emery, will appear in a Toronto courtroom where they will plead guilty to marijuana charges laid after the police busted marijuana stores they were running in Ontario and British Columbia. They will have to pay large fines.

How large? “You’re not allowed to tell the amount, but you can say an enormous, unprecedentedly large amount,” Marc said in an interview last week.

READ MORE: Are Marc and Jodie Emery bad for the weed movement?

It seems absurd that the Emerys, who have spent years fighting the unjust laws against marijuana, in and out of prison, can’t now sell the product, while Fantino, who once compared marijuana to murder, is going to cash in.

But Marc is philosophical about it all. He says he actually enjoyed much of his time in prison, where he read hundreds of books, improved his musical skills and got along easily with the other inmates, often helping them as a “jailhouse lawyer.”

“I have almost no negative memories of my five years in prison,” he says. “My biggest regret is all the money and energy I expended for Jodie to visit me.”

Jodie flew down to see him 81 times. She found the experience difficult, largely because of what she saw families of other prisoners go through. She hated the emotional scene at the end of visiting time at Yazoo, when the wives and children of prisoners would line up and wait to be let out.

“You’re standing there looking at your loved one, all the way across this concrete room and the men are all acting brave and you can’t really talk because you’re across the room. And little kids will run across the room, and go, ‘Daddy Daddy’ and jump in his arms and come running back. And you see these moms, the wives and the mothers of the inmates, and they have their backs turned to the inmates and they’re crying and they don’t want to stand there and have their loved one watch them cry, so they turn their back to their loved one while they wait to get out. And the little kids are like, ‘Mommy don’t cry. Mommy don’t cry.’”

Jodie Emery is a tender-hearted, idealistic person. She wants to change the laws that keep fathers away from their children because of drug laws that are unjust, particularly to non-white people, who are much more likely to be incarcerated.

“If the government told me that I could, like, never smoke pot again, and never be in the pot business, but they would never arrest anyone else again, and nobody would lose their kids, and nobody would lose their job for failing a drug test, and nobody would be demonized or persecuted for pot, I would take that in a second,” she says. “Because it’s not about me, it’s not about Marc. I want to help all these people who don’t have a face and a name. They need help.”

The Emerys will likely eventually find a way to participate in the legal marijuana business—using their high profile to boost the business prospects of a licensed producer after pot is legalized next summer—but the immediate future is uncertain.

Their fines will put them deep in debt. Marc made a lot of money on the mail-order seed business until the Americans locked him up, but the Emerys say he gave it all away to activists.

The DEA backs his story. When they announced his arrest, they noted that he had “channelled” hundreds of thousands of dollars to “marijuana legalization groups active in the United States and Canada.”

It’s not clear what kind of role either of them will be able to play in running their business—Cannabis Culture—after they plead guilty.

Meanwhile, Fantino and a lot of other people who busted marijuana users could soon be profiting from legalization.

Jodie has been making a list of former senior police who are taking part in marijuana businesses. There are 17 names on that list.

“I get feelings of outrage and disgust because of the unfairness of it,” she says.

The worst in her mind is Fantino. “It’s somebody who literally voted against, campaigned against, fought against any sort of law reform, and only when, through government coercion, people would be forced to buy from only a few people, he was willing to be one of those people to cash in.”

(Fantino, by the way, says that he hasn’t changed his mind about recreational marijuana, merely medical marijuana.)

People in the legal business—people who can get security clearances that the Liberals’ legislation demands—say the Emerys present a challenge to licensed producers, because of their strident activism.

In this period—what Marc calls the “purgatory between prohibition and legalization”—the well-connected corporate entrepreneurs in the new weed businesses can’t afford to be associated with the wild-eyed activists who were willing to go to prison for what they thought was right.

But they were right all along, and Fantino was wrong, and that will only ever get clearer as time goes by.

Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone: Hunter S. Thompson

In your correspondent’s [much-addled] mind, “good journalism” should be factual, providing facts and information about which readers were heretofore unaware; enlightening, by arranging said facts into patterns and conclusions not immediately evident; or entertaining, releasing deep, atavistic belly laughs from deep in our psyches. Unfortunately, Dr. Hunter provides precious little of any of the three. I don’t know how his work read in the 1970s, but based on these three criteria it hasn’t aged well.

And still I read all 592 pages. All. Simply because of an innate inability to put down any book I’ve started reading. I need help. Please. An intervention is in order.

The Chimera Vector: Nathan Faruggia

Thrillers written by authors such as da Silva, Steinhauer or le Carre are literary and psychological masterpieces. A middle tier of thriller writers can provide an entertaining read. Outside of these two groups, there’s a much lower tier of writers, who think dropping lists of random military hardware thrown into a blender with standard plot devices and mashed up, cardboard characters running around doing random, implausible things somehow makes a good read. This is the latter.