A new report published by GlobalData.com shows that interest in fungi as a health food is growing across the globe. 57% of people questioned believe mushrooms can positively impact their health. Only 5% of participants felt it might have a negative effect.
Ryan Whittaker, Consumer Analyst at GlobalData said, “The world has discovered a treasure trove in fungi. We are seeing a significant number of new product releases from teas and mushroom-boosted supplements to pet care, skincare, and make-up products.”
Fungi appear to hold the key to a world of endless possibilities, from healing our bodies and minds to restoring the very fabric of our planet. We are only currently aware of 100,000 species of fungi out of an estimated 5,000,000 out there. Scientists have only sequenced the DNA of 1,000 of these fungi. But sequencing is likely to significantly increase over the short and long term through the use of AI. So who knows what could soon be discovered. The possibilities are virtually endless.
What’s so great about fungi?
The ‘mushroom’ as we know it is the fruiting body. It’s the reproductive part of the fungi network. Deep beneath our feet, there lies the substrate-dwelling mycelium; a vast network of branching, thread-like hyphae which act as the world-wide-web and food delivery service for subterranean rooting systems. The mycelium weaves through the soil, facilitating communication and sharing resources among the trees and the plants. This incredible symbiotic relationship exists whereby a distressed tree can signal nearby fungi which then deliver nutrients and enzymes, helping the trees back to health.
This is perhaps difficult for us humans to get our minds around, nature assisting nature rather than seeking to destroy it but it’s maybe time for us to start listening to our elders and wisers.
Millions of dollars are now being invested into discovering and utilising what fungi can do to help humanity. Below are just a few of those that we know about.
Amidst the chaos, fungi emerge as the unexpected champions in the battle against climate change. Their magical mycelial networks possess an otherworldly ability to capture and store carbon. As they decompose organic matter, they stash carbon away, deep within the soil, providing a natural solution for carbon sequestration. So with a little imagination and ingenuity,y humans could harness the power of these carbon-capturing superheroes to combat rising greenhouse gas emissions and bring back ecological balance.
Then there is the enchanting magic of fungal enzymes. These alchemical wonders possess the power to transform industries and revolutionise the world as we know it. With their extraordinary ability to break down complex compounds, fungal enzymes become our allies in biofuel production, waste management, and pesticides.
They can restore contaminated sites, degrading chemical pollutants, oil spills, and even pesticide residues. Through the remarkable process of bioremediation, fungi turn wastelands into fertile grounds, breathing life back into ecosystems scarred by human activity.
They have the power to absorb heavy metals, break down pesticides, and even tame the destructive forces of radiation.
Following the catastrophic event at Chernobyl in 1986, the release of radiation created a harsh environment for most organisms. However, certain species of fungi thrived in the contaminated area. These fungi, known as radiotrophic fungi possess unique mechanisms that allow them to harness energy from ionizing radiation. They convert the radiation into chemical energy, enabling their growth and survival. The presence of these fungi in Chernobyl has provided valuable insights into the fascinating adaptations of organisms in extreme environments and their potential for bioremediation.
Fungi gave us antibiotics, including penicillin, which revolutionised the treatment of bacterial infections. Within the vast array of fungi species, of which there are estimated to be around 5,000,000, lies a treasure trove of medicinal potential. Centuries of exploration have so far uncovered profound contributions to human health.
Today, scientists are delving further into the possibilities of fungal compounds, investigating their potential in developing life-saving drugs such as anti-cancer agents, immunosuppressants, and cholesterol-lowering medications. We use fungi to enable neuro genesis, to treat cognitive decline such as in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Specific species of fungi are being used right now to treat depression and anxiety.
We are beginning to use fungi-based dyes as a replacement for the toxic chemicals used in fashion. In packaging and construction, the properties of mycelium can create eco-friendly alternatives to plastic and other nonbiodegradable products. The mycelium can be moulded into a leather-like product. So in the future, we could be wearing it too.
The destructive force of farming
Modern farming practices unwittingly wage war on the fungal communities. Pesticides, herbicides, and the relentless assault of heavy machinery disrupt the vital mycelium, the interconnected web of life in the soil. The consequences are dire, as nutrient cycling falters, soil structure crumbles, and biodiversity suffers.
It’s clear that we must embrace a collaborative approach to farming and bid farewell to monocultures and pesticide-soaked fields. Instead, we must embrace regenerative farming practices that nourish the delicate mycelium. Through crop rotation, ending chemical inputs, and cultivating biodiversity, we can create a harmonious environment where fungi thrive alongside our crops, rejuvenating the land and providing sustainable nourishment.
Time to be thankful
Fungi such as mushrooms and mycoproteins, with their unique texture, umami flavour, and versatility, offer an alternative to traditional meat-based products, mimicking the taste and texture of meat while providing comparable protein content and nutrients. And of course,e it requires significantly less land and water, and produces less greenhouse gas emissions, compared to livestock farming.
Imagine a world in which we had no bread, no wine or cheese, no soy sauce, miso, chocolate, and of course, no beer.
This quiet unassuming million-year old organism has always been in our lives in some form or another; from magic to fairy tale to breakfast. So could its vastly evolved network of possibilities now be the answer to ALL of humanity’s problems from structural and ecological, to health and wellbeing – and of course for our exploration of self – a subject for another time.
This was a guest post submission from Alex Crisp, host of the The Future of Food podcast in which he discusses the food landscape in the near and distant future with academics, business leaders, and industry influencers.