Mycelium among us

Fungi are here to help, but can mushrooms really save the world?

It doesn’t take a pessimist to point out that things are grim. The environmental situation alone is dire enough to dominate headlines even amid a global pandemic, while various entrenched, inflamed social ills make the idea of human progress seem less than certain. Little surprise, then, that many people are looking for solutions — and hope — in some unexpected places. Perhaps one of the strangest is fungi.

Lexie Gropper of Amisacho Restauración in Lago Agrio, Ecuador. Following decades of massive petroleum contamination to local farmland, Gropper and her partners moved from working to find fungal strains that eat the oil, to producing medicinal mushroom tinctures for local cancer patients whose condition is attributed to the contamination. Meanwhile, they are performing 'social remediation', seeking to teach local farmers to assess the health of their land as the first step towards healing the landscape.

Mushrooms will save the world, you might have heard, and perhaps also wondered what kind of mushrooms one has to eat in order to believe that. But the more you learn about fungi, the less absurd the claim seems. Indeed, there is much to be hopeful about when it comes to mushrooms, which is part of why I spent the last few years exploring the emerging fringes of fungal subculture for my new book, In Search of Mycotopia.

Many people don’t even know what a fungus is, except maybe that it’s something to be avoided, or put atop a pizza. But fungi represent an entire kingdom of life, every bit as massive, diverse, and ecologically important as animals, plants, or bacteria. They are ubiquitous, too, found quite literally everywhere on earth; their spores float in and out of us with every breath; myriad varieties live within our guts and throughout our bodies, as well as that of almost every other animal and plant. People seem to finally be discovering how strange, useful and just plain fascinating fungi are, leading to new books, films, podcasts, and other media that prove mushrooms are having a moment.

Grey oyster mushrooms for sale at a Colorado Springs summer farmer's market. The mushrooms were grown and sold by MycoSprings, a small landscaping company that incorporates fungi into their projects, offering enhanced plant and soil health, along with the bonus of delicious mushrooms like these, which can be picked, eaten or sold.

This is all a far cry from the aversion many people have towards mushrooms, as representatives of death and decay (as if either are bad). Much of fungal aversion — or “mycophobia” — is seemingly a cultural inheritance, in contrast to the many positive relationships humans have developed with fungi over millennia in cultures outside the North America and the UK, whether as food, medicine, durable materials, powerful symbols or, as we now know, launchpads for spiritual experiences. Many of these aspects are still relevant today.

Small-scale mushroom cultivation is booming across the country, as people grow food and medicine for themselves, their communities, and as the basis of growing local markets for fresh specialty mushrooms. But fungi are also exciting people for their abilities to degrade all sorts of compounds and chemicals, from hydrocarbons and heavy metals to explosives and even, in some experiments, nerve gas. Fungi show potential as non-chemical pest management, too, able to grow in and sporulate from specific insects, most often cited example being the Cordyceps species that turn ants into zombies. Fungi are also emerging as the basis of a whole new materials and textiles industry, from replacement leather to packing materials to synthetic meat.

Craig Trester of Biotech Without Borders teaches an introductory mycology class to a group of curious New Yorkers at the Metropolitan Exchange in Brooklyn. The class project involved inoculating strips of cardboard with fungal mycelium, which they could take hope to grow into full-fledged mushrooms.

Most of this falls under the umbrella — ok, fine, mushroom cap — of ‘applied mycology’, a term for working with fungi to remediate landscapes and waterways, or to find new uses, beyond those humans have already known about for millennia. And applied mycology is generating a huge amount of excitement, with mycological innovators like Peter McCoy, Maya Elison, Tradd Cotter, and of course Paul Stamets — easily the world’s most influential myco-evangelist — spreading the word about the fungi’s potential to heal our world.

Meanwhile, a boutique industry of fungus-infused chocolates, coffee, ghee, and other value-add products is growing more common and popular, as a new generation of influencers are emerging to spread the myco message to people of diverse demographics and backgrounds. As western science and culture alike finally turn to mushrooms with interest instead of disgust, it seems this could mark a new chapter in our relationship with not just fungi, but also nature, and perhaps even one another.

Fungi are indeed full of potential, most of it unexplored (in part because less than ten percent of fungi have been identified). But to realize that potential, any ‘myco solutions’ must be adopted at scale. Trying to remediate an oil spill in the Amazon, I learned, is tough because the people whose land is contaminated are also extremely poor, and the for-profit remediation companies are far more likely to turn to familiar methods than to some experimental fungal approach. Fungi may well become powerful allies in fighting colony collapse disorder, or eating up oil spills, but to make any difference they must confront the age-old systems of power that shape most aspects of life.

Alex Dorr, co-founder of Mushroom Revival shows off the many 'pins' of Cordyceps mushrooms beginning to grow in multi-spectrum light in their former Western Massachusetts production facility. Now based in Austin, they are perhaps the largest commercial cultivator of Cordyceps fungi in the United States, producing a line of tinctures and other fungi-infused products.

Interestingly, many of those who are taking up their message are less interested in profit than building community; less motivated to dominate a market than to encourage equitable, reciprocal relationships between their communities and Mother Earth, and therefore to one another. In the emerging mycological spaces that I have visited, people advocate for biocentrism and mutual aid as better social and economic models than competition, and try to shape their communities accordingly. Indeed, fungi may not be able to heal our world until we remediate the social conditions that have, by and large, created the very problems we now hope to solve.

It is here that I find what is perhaps humanity’s greatest hope in fungi, and they are already helping make it happen. In my travels, I visited the POC Fungi Community Gathering in San Diego (or unceded Kumeyaay Territory), the New Moon Mycology Summit, the Mycosymbiotics Festival, the Texas MycoAlliance, and other places, events and groups around the country and in others, where people are gathering around fungi according to the values they observe in the fungal kingdom and in nature generally. In these spaces, collaboration and integration, not competition or survival of the fittest, are the driving principles to which we should aspire: symbiosis, reciprocity, sustainability, community agency, a just distribution of resources. Instead of asking mushrooms to fix our problems, they are gathering to devise their own solutions to their problems.

The greatest power of mushrooms, it seems, is their ability to bring people together, and it is exactly this power that I explore in my book. I invite you to learn more about the fascinating movement and work involving fungi, but which is really about so much more.

Buy - In Search of Mycotopia