You heard it here first (or maybe third): mushrooms are having a moment. Plant-based diets are in vogue, and not only are mushrooms replacing the Big Mac, but they’re also used as leather-like alternatives and digesting toxic waste, and are being crushed into medicinal powders. So are countries like the UK and the US finally waking up to a potential that the rest of the world has known about for years?
Unlike other countries in Europe, the UK has mycophobia—an irrational fear of mushrooms. Yes, pick the wrong one and you can die, or get incredibly high. We all know what happened to Alice when she took a bite from the toadstool—she grew inhumanely tall. Fungi have been vilified and fabled into stories as harmful, and have been associated with witchcraft and altered states. As a former colony of the UK, the US has inherited these prejudices. Dr Cornelia Cho, paediatrician and president of the Georgia Mushroom Club explains, “the genocide of the Native American population contributed tremendously towards losing existing traditional lore.”
In other cultures, however, fungi are celebrated. Traditional Chinese medicine has adopted mushrooms for years. Cho remembers receiving dried shiitake by post from her Korean grandmother. Chinese American photographer Phyllis Ma recalls her mum making medicinal broths with a parasitic mushroom that grows on caterpillars. Most white Americans don’t understand how tasty this food can be, having been brought up on canned button mushrooms that taste as slimy as they sound. “Urg. I don’t like to eat those either,” Cho muses. “But frustratingly, the people that try them have made a huge generalisation based on one of the sorriest culinary specimens out there.”
If you’re interested in mushrooms, it probably didn’t take long for you to realise their health benefits. “I found out as soon as I cared,” William Padilla-Brown tells me. A celebrity in the fungi community, William dropped out of high school to follow his passion for farming. After dabbling in the magical variety, he soon realised how important these species were to natural systems and strived to grow his own.
Finding no educational instructors in the area, Padilla-Brown turned to Youtube. “I didn’t have any money or funding, to begin with”, he told Screen Shot. “My set-up was very low tech. I used to hang the mushroom blocks off the ceiling with strings.” Today, Padilla-Brown specialises in cultivating and selling Cordyceps militaris, a parasitic medicinal mushroom that looks like a cheese puff. Not only is it anti-viral, but it boosts energy and can even make you better in bed.
“During this COVID-19 crisis, I wouldn’t want to be without medicinal mushrooms,” Cho tells me. “Most support our immune system.” As a paediatrician, she recommends that her patients eat more mushrooms, period. They act as prebiotics, the soil needed to make probiotics grow, and they can treat a variety of symptoms. “A doctor I know in Indiana read about oyster mushrooms being helpful for eczema. He put them on his sons scrambled eggs every morning and his atopic dermatitis cleared up in weeks. I now offer it as an option for parents.”
Both experts advocate the same thing, food is medicine—an idea still not granted the time of day across the west. Nutrition barely enters into a trainee doctor’s curriculum. Western medicine may have made some giant leaps, but it is reactionary rather than preventative. “By jumping in to solve problems, Western medicine has not actually succeeded in helping people stay out of trouble,” Cho explains.
She quotes the American novelist Wendell Berry, “People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are healed by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.” We’ve become disconnected from what we eat and therefore all that grows. It is this severing from the natural world that Padilla-Brown believes makes us so reliant on western medicine and over-prescribed drugs. Humans are living longer, but they’re also getting sicker and this cycle is feeding greedy pharmaceutical giants.
The US and the UK are approaching this newfound interest in holistic medicine in a typically problematic and western way. What should really be eaten and grown is being reduced to powders to be sold on shelves. When a customer sees these capsules, they can’t truly understand where it comes from. “The demand we have seen from Western countries has trifled our understanding of indigenous uses for these mushrooms,” Padilla-Brown explains. “It has pushed the prices up to the point where the people that use them indigenously don’t have access to them. It’s now more viable for them to sell them.” Cho compares it to the societies whose ancient foods, like quinoa, have become trendy ‘superfoods’, “these then get outpriced for original consumers.”
The solution is to grow your own or at least turn to local and ethical producers. Luckily, if you know what to do, “medicinal mushrooms are relatively cultivatable and expansible,” Cho comments. When Padilla-Brown first started cultivating cordyceps there was no information in English, his solution was to write a handbook.
For him, it is important that information is democratised, so everyone has an equal footing. His focus is on teaching in inner-city, lower socio-economic areas, where there’s less access to resources and education. “It’s beneficial that I am not a stereotypical scientist. I look like a regular street kid,” he enthuses. “I go in and communicate with them on their level and relate to them because I can. I’ll go in and perform music as well as teach people about ecology.”
The photographer Phyllis Ma advocates that you don’t have to be an expert to appreciate fungi. Her colourful still lifes bring mushrooms into popular culture channels, so we can witness each specimen’s mischievous personality. “They’re a lot like people,” she muses. “You come to realise each is distinct when you get closely acquainted.” She’s foraged for mushrooms from Brooklyn to Berlin, as well as sourcing supplies from New York City’s only mushroom farm, Smallhold. Padilla-Brown has also provided her with cordyceps—he explains, “exposing people to new realities is one of the most important things we can do.”
We’re so used to seeing lifeless button mushrooms littering the shelves, that it’s no wonder the UK greets this food with disgust. Phyllis Ma’s photographs, alongside Padilla-Brown and Cho’s work, teach us that there’s so much more to fungi and it’s time we acknowledged it.
Anti-vaxxers, also known as people who are opposed to vaccination, typically a parent who refuses to vaccinate their child, must be stopped. The anti-vaccination movement, which continues to grow, is a main source of worry for scientists who are sure vaccines work, but it should also be one for the rest of us. Measles (among other diseases) is on the rise once again, and reviews found that there is a correlation between the two problems. Here’s what is wrong with anti-vaxxers and what needs to be done.
The anti-vaccination movement comes from the idea that there’s a connection between vaccination and autism, as well as other brain disorders. This idea rests upon no scientific evidence, but as you’ve probably realised by now, the same can be said about many other beliefs in our increasingly disbelieving world.
Measles is a disease more contagious than Tuberculosis or Ebola, yet it is easily preventable with a vaccine that barely costs anything. When measles was declared to be eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, everyone thought—rightly so—that it was thanks to vaccines. And yet here we are, in 2019, with parents knowingly withholding their children from something that could save them from potential brain damage and death. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2018 measles cases in the U.S. went up six-fold while they tripled across Europe.
The situation is so bad that even Trump, who only a year ago ‘flirted’ with notorious anti-vaxxers and repeatedly linked vaccinations to autism, declared that people “have to get their shots”. In other words, if even Trump takes these outbreaks seriously, this is not something to disregard. This entirely preventable emergency that started in March this year should be a lesson to everyone about how unfortunate a world without vaccines would be.
A few months after the outbreak, anti-vaxxers are still going strong, lowering herd immunity quickly. In the U.K., Prince Charles’ mission to save homeopathy is reenforcing the public’s distrust in medical science. How? By promoting homeopathy as a miracle remedy, one that hasn’t been provided by the NHS since 2017 and has been described by its chief executive Simon Stevens as “at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds”.
The anti-vaccination movement comes exactly from the growing public distrust of vaccines, but also in science, in the government, and in the pharmaceutical industry more broadly. So what can we do, really, apart from making vaccines mandatory for everyone? Tackling fake news and misinformation, especially fake medical news on social media, would be a first step.
In March 2016, even Robert De Niro dabbled in this affair by promoting the anti-vaccination documentary Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe and pushing for the film to be featured in the Tribeca Film Festival. A few days after, De Niro decided not to include the film, most likely realising the larger-scale impact that this could have on the country’s already declining health.
Lastly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that more people are involved in the whole vaccination drama and therefore should be held accountable. Health professionals have to take accountability or be made to do so in this matter as well. We need to ensure that doctors giving shots are equipped with concrete information and available to talk to those who have concerns, so that parents can feel like they’re making well-informed decisions.
Conspiracy theories are fine and should be left alone to thrive on Reddit as long as they’re not hurting people in the process. People that don’t make the effort to promote vaccination are unknowingly allowing anti-vaxxers to do their damage. Anti-vaxxers should be called out—by the government, by doctors, by you, me—so that putting kids’ vaccination ‘on hold’ becomes shocking and taboo again. It’s a matter of life and death.