Good scientists, I believe, are key to any civil society, and the world of food and nutrition has lost a very good one indeed.
Sixty-year-old Dr. Khaled Belkacemi, one of six men killed Jan. 29 at the Centre Culturel Islamique de Québec, was a professor in the Faculty of Agricultural & Food Sciences at Université Laval, also located in Quebec City. Ironically, he and his family came to Canada from Algeria to get away from turmoil there.
A highly regarded chemical scientist, Dr. Belkacemi's research and life's work were focused on a number of things near and dear to my heart, and the hearts of many readers: How to eat more healthily. How to avoid unnecessary chemicals in our diet. How to better use our planet's limited resources in the face of evermore people, including how to cut down on food waste by things like using better freezing techniques or putting byproducts to better use. He was also often a consultant to food manufacturers regarding best design for food processes and equipment — quietly working in the background of our long, modern, food supply chain in ways we eager food consumers seldom consider.
As the news of the tragedy circulated, tributes to Dr. Belkacemi poured in. Together, they paint a picture of a man who was highly regarded; a man who was very attentive and kind; who, when he asked how you were, really wanted to know. Those lucky enough to know him include his three children (17 children in all were left fatherless by the attack); his wife, Safia Hamoudi, a professor in the same faculty who often collaborated on his projects; and countless friends, students and colleagues at the university and beyond.
The latest issue of c&en (Chemical & Engineering News) from the American Chemical Society, which counted Dr. Belkacemi among its 157,000 members, features tributes from a host of colleagues. Besides his remarkable nature, members of the Center for Green Chemistry and Catalysis in Quebec along with other scientists and professors note his work as an eminent researcher and his valuable contributions to science, especially food engineering. He was respected by his peers for "good science" — developing intelligent questions, being careful with facts and the interpretation of results, and pursuing work that was relevant.
But I wanted to talk to one of his colleagues in person so I phoned Sylvie Turgeon, Université Laval professor and director of the Institute of Nutrition and Functional Foods, of which Dr. Belkacemi was a faculty member. She worked with him for nearly 15 years.
"Generally, he had been interested for so long in green processes, so that means taking byproducts and adding value to those products by using green processes — new techniques, for example, like ultrasound, or using catalyzers, which are natural molecules that catalyze or create some reaction in a different way," she says.
"His main way has always been to develop some natural processes for producing new ingredients."
For instance, a recent paper Dr. Belkacemi co-authored in Food Science and Nutrition, a peer-reviewed science publication, proposes using green alternatives such as grapes and spices like cloves and cinnamon instead of nitrates and nitrites to preserve meats. Nitrates, which are just about everywhere — in the air, in soil, in water — are also commonly used to preserve things like bacon and ham. While prescribed levels are safe, we should limit our consumption of them because they're also linked to cancer. Ergo Dr. Belkacemi's search for alternatives.
"The other thing that was of great interest to him was to work on something that was relevant and will have a real application — taking underutilized material, say from the dairy industry or agriculture, then using some green processes to give it value," she says.
For instance, Dr. Belkacemi and his colleagues investigated how to better use lactose, a common byproduct in the whey left over from cheese production. It's often used as filler in pills in the pharmaceutical industry, but smaller dairy farmers sometimes don't have access to that end-use market.
"For him, the big picture was that the result of the research would have an impact, would be significant for the world. So it could be through adding value for the industry but, as well, it could be the preservation of the ecosystem."
It's hard to imagine just where Dr. Belkacemi's work would have taken him eventually, how it might have benefitted us all. But it's safe to say that even though it's going to be very difficult for weeks or even months for his professional colleagues, including his wife, they are determined to carry on his work.
In the meantime, consider this: Besides good scientists, another thing I believe is that the web of life is interconnected in ways we do not and may never fully understand.
Now, maybe, just maybe, when you hear another reductive sound bite or see another reductive tweet or headline about the "Quebec City mosque victims" or the "mosque attack" you might stop and reflect how you — how all of us — might be connected to such a tragedy. And what else might be behind words like "mosque" and "victims" and "attack."
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who likes to pause and reflect now and then. Rest peacefully, Dr. Belkacemi.