Speaking of mushrooms — and this week, we clearly are! — I recently peered into the world of home mushroom growing, and came away with a brand-new respect for fungi.
Sure, mushrooms are totes delish and they're an important part of permaculture, the approach to farming that attempts to mimic natural ecosystems. I could have written about how it's relatively easy to launch your own little mushroom colony in your kitchen or backyard (for more on that, check out fungi.com, the website for mushroom and information purveyor Fungi Perfecti), or the benefits of "edible forest gardens" (like one in Holyoke, Massachusetts). And of course everyone knows that protein-rich mushrooms are a great substitution for beef, the most environmentally egregious meat.
But I'd rather tell you how mushrooms (or more specifically, mycelium, the branching, thread-like fungal fingers that are the akin to the mushroom's root system) can:
• REDUCE THE NEED FOR FERTILIZER IN AGRICULTURE
Mushrooms and plants have a symbiotic relationship, in that a type of fungus that grows on plant roots (mycorrhizal fungi) also generates key nutrients that aid in healthy plant growth. Specifically, mycorrhizal fungi give plants access to phosphate, a dwindling resource that's crucial to agricultural fertilizers. Scientists are working on ways to produce large quantities of mycorrhizal fungi in regions where phosphate is difficult to obtain.
Mycelium also helps decompose plant matter on "no-till" farms, a sustainable agricultural technique often used in organic farming. The fungi naturally break down plant matter, adding nutrients to the soil in the place of chemical fertilizers.
• BREAK DOWN CERTAIN TOXINS AND POLLUTANTS (ESPECIALLY, UM, CRAPPY ONES)
According to a Mexico City scientist who published a study in the Waste Management journal, "cultivating the right type of mushroom [oyster mushrooms, to be precise] on soiled [diapers] can break down 90 percent of the material they are made of within two months." Yup, you read that right. Fungi can eat shit so the rest of us don't have to worry about it. Disposable diapers are notorious solid-waste polluters; oyster mushrooms can help solve the problem.
Same goes for unwanted toxins in agricultural animal waste, i.e., chicken and pig poop, which contain fecal coliform bacteria that can pollute groundwater. Studies have shown that when mycelium is laid down between animal enclosures and water sources, water quality improves — the fungus acts like a kind of filter.
• HELP MITIGATE NATURAL AND MANMADE DISASTERS
One of the world's leading fun-guys (couldn't resist), Paul Stamets, who runs Fungi Perfecti and who gave a 2008 TED talk called "Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save The World," says that mycelium fungus could have been used to respond to the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Mycoremediation would involve colonizing saltwater-soaked straw with oyster mushroom mycelium, creating floating "booms" that would absorb, contain, and neutralize toxic oil hydrocarbons. Stamets also envisions employing mycelium (and "Mycological Response Teams") to similar effect in the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which contaminated water supplies.
"On a grand scale, I envision that we, as a people, develop a common myco-ecology of consciousness and address these common goals through the use of mycelium," Stamets wrote in a paper posted on Fungi Perfecti in 2010. "Please spread the word of mycelium . . . Bring your local leaders up to the learning curve on how fungi can decompose toxic substances, rebuild soils and strengthen our food chains . . . We need a paradigm shift, a multi-generational educational infrastructure, bringing fungal solutions to the forefront of viable options to mitigate disasters."
Big words, sure, but also visionary ones. Imagine if we could save the world with mushrooms!
Deirdre Fulton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.