Future Farm Lab Travels Vol. 3: Abi Aspen 'From the lab grown meat to fields of wheat'

About 2 years ago I began a journey through our food system that I could never have foreseen. What began as an attempt to address some of the issues surrounding industrial farming using my chemical engineering degree ended up throwing me head first into a system that we are part of and buy into every day and that is both glorious and terrifying if you scratch the surface, deeper than the eye can see.

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I began a PhD in cellular agriculture in Dec 2015 which in a nutshell meant I was growing meat in the lab from stem cells rather than directly from animals. Having been drawn in by all the media of how hideous animal agriculture is and how this could be the solution to all our problems, I was sold from the word go. It was even in Vogue, come on :D

However beneath all media hype I began realise a few things.

1)      The building blocks of this technology are not properly formed, even if they may look like it and many of the hurdles are not really recognised and addressed in the public domain. I was always very lucky my funders New Harvest supported my wish to face these obstacles head on, they back fundamental research and campaign for cellular agriculture transparency.

2)      The second realisation was that the fundamentals of all our agricultural technology remain the same as agriculture itself. The sun, soil, plants, water, farmers. Just as they feed us they also feed these technologies. GM, lab meat, aquaponics. Without protecting these our future can only be industrial and linear.

3)      Lastly, not all animal agriculture is the same. Whether you look to welfare, the environment or food security there is such a spectrum in our farming practices.

Very quickly it dawned on me how little I actually knew about food and farming. Never one to be just book read or take things as a given I started to explore and ask questions.

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Through travels, stories and many a bizarre meeting I started to realise that a ‘sustainable’ future will be just as diverse as the present if not more, and we need to collaborate and unite in that diversity. No one as a one size fit’s all answer.

What bamboozled me was how we label technologies as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and I realised there was not really such a thing, just how they are used. As a good friend once said ‘nothing is black and white, everything is multi-coloured’. Also how we often look for silver bullets when in reality they don’t exist.

But despite being surrounded by people during my PhD, I began to feel alone. Made for the outside I felt rather like a caged bird in the lab; at conferences I was one of the only one chatting about pasture managed cattle and heritage grains; and I also didn’t look to tech in quite the same way as my peers.

Don’t get me wrong I had a lot of fun along the way too. But I came to realise I had possibly gone on a bit of an ego trip, travelling round and chatting about what I was doing and feeling rather important.

But to be honest I missed the breeze, the soil, the sun, the plants. The grassroots system work. The hands on core social change.

I missed reality.

And a couple of questions really started to bug me. Why do we not value those who grow our food now? Why do we shy away from social change and look always to technological fixes? What can we do to shape the food system we want to see?

And I was incredibly lucky to meet 2 other fantastic ladies Phoebe and Sophie who has also begun to ask questions. Then experiment, analyse the crap out of and discuss them in the most awesomely nerdy scientist way, and together Future Farm Lab was born.

Since then it’s been a rollercoaster. As detailed in our previous blog post, Future Farm Lab has changed over time as we began to understand what we feel the world needs now.

And in spring 2017 I made the big decision to leave the lab. Many supported me, many thought I was mad. One chap even said ‘leaving the PhD is the worst thing you will ever do’. But something just didn’t feel quite right, and I couldn’t see the light in my work anymore, also I was finding it hard to see further than my hand in front of my face. What else is out there? So I moved from the lab into the fields. I now farm part time just north of London, botanically explore the world looking for orphaned or forgotten grains, co-run the grain coop #OurField and do other sustainable food/science/farming bits and bobs.

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But through all of this Future Farm Lab still remains. The rock of which we can all secure our rope and paddle out to sea. And I tell you what, it’s been and continues to be a crazy adventure.

And now? The adventure continues. This summer we are travelling all around the food system, the UK and beyond. We are sharing stories, learning, experimenting and playing in order to better understand our food system and how we can move towards something brighter.

The ‘farm tour’ begins now!! So make sure watch this space :)

Photo credit: Bite to the Future, Jellied Eel Mag & Joe Sarah Photography

Abi Aspen Glencross