Cultivated mushrooms are fat- and cholesterol-free, low-sodium foods, rich in important nutrients (including some nutrients not usually found in great amounts in fresh produce) and containing antioxidants. Mushrooms satisfy the needs of health-conscious consumers and are a desirable alternative food, especially for vegetarians and flexitarians.
A number of scientific studies conducted over the past 10 years have shown a direct relationship between the consumption of fresh mushrooms and a declining rate of breast and prostate cancer growth, as well as the suppression of a compound believed to play a role in cancer tumor
In spite of the potential benefits from mushroom production and consumption Africa desperately lags behind in mushroom production and mushroom trade. World trade in mushrooms and mushroom products is currently estimated at over US$30bn. Africa contributes less than 1 % to this value, despite possessing so much biological waste. This scenario needs urgent reversal, and mushroom production needs to be recognized as one innovative approach that can contribute to the goals of economic growth, poverty reduction, health improvement and women emancipation in Africa. Africa stands to learn from the expansion of the mushroom industry in China. In 1978 China was an insignificant producer of mushrooms. In 2002, it accounted for 70 % of the world’s production.
Wild mushroom consumption and medicinal use is generally widespread in southern Africa. Nonetheless, off-season mushroom cultivation is almost unknown. In some southern African countries, a little mushroom production takes place, while in others the technology is almost non-existent. Several factors contribute to this apathy or failure to seize upon these economic opportunities, including:
- Lack of information on the economic and health benefits derivable from mushroom farming. This dearth of information transcends communities, opinion leaders and policy makers.
- Lack of trained research and extension personnel
- Poor market organisation and market linkages
- Lack of production skills
- Poor availability of affordable public spawn (=mushroom seed equivalent) for distribution among farmers
- Poor sensitisation of entrepreneurs who could make private investment in the mushroom industry
The deficiency of information partly arises from the fact that mushrooms are not integral crops in the mandates of National Agricultural Research and Extension Services (NARES) in most countries, thereby receiving no consideration whatsoever. This leads to a lack of trained personnel and capacity in the NARES and academia to carry out mushroom research and extension. Established grain and legume crops encourage self-sustaining seed industries, whether they are commercial sales or farmer recycling practices. Mushroom production among small-scale producers requires public support in the supply of spawn for two reasons: Firstly, a very small emerging industry with poor perception (due to ignorance) by local businesses does not attract private investment. Secondly, mushroom spawn manufacture and storage require specialised techniques and conditions. The above factors necessitate project support to kick start the mushroom industry, before it can be expected to survive by itself.