2 Powerful Ways Mushrooms Will Fight Climate Change

pollution
Deadly Carbon Emmission

The Paris Summit on climate change has ended with rich nations and developing countries clashing over who will pay for what. While all that is going on, one small company in Vietnam has been working quietly on combating climate change. ‘Fargreen’ is a social enterprise founded in 2013 by Trang Tran and is one of the recipients of the prestigious ‘Foreign Policy’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers 2015’ who has received US$250,000 in funding for her innovative approach to combating climate change. This is a company that works with Vietnamese farmers, educates them to change age-old beliefs where millions of tons of rice straw are burnt during the harvesting season; a practice which according to scientists helps create thick smog and contributes to global warming.

The business model followed by Fargreen is what the company calls a “closed loop business model in which no net waste is added in the whole production process. We set up a network of farmers who collect rice straw from their own paddy field and helps them to produce high quality edible mushrooms in an eco-friendly closed-loop system. After the mushrooms are harvested, they will be shipped to Fargreen’s processing and packaging center where they are processed, packaged and then delivered to the hands of the customers under the brand of Fargreen. The leftover after mushroom cultivation will be recycled back to nourish the soil as bio-fertilizer.”

The key thrust to Fargreen’s efforts is to build prosperous and sustainable farming communities by growing mushrooms produced in an environmentally friendly manner for both the local and international markets. The two types of mushrooms grown by Vietnamese farmers using the Fargreen model entails farmers not burning the straw which is thought of as waste; rather it is used to grow mushrooms because rice straw helps grow the fungi. The pilot project involving 10 farmers has successfully produced its first harvest of mushrooms and each farmer generated an extra $2 of income per day, supplementing the usual $5 per day daily income – an increase of 40 percent.

The two varieties of mushrooms that have been successfully grown are the straw mushroom and oyster mushroom. The first is the common, everyday mushroom consumed locally while the latter is considered a delicacy suitable for export, and thus there is a “value addition” to it which may prove particularly appealing.

Ms. Tran who has a background in international development and holds an MBA degree from Colorado State understood that for any meaningful change in attitudes to take place amongst farmers, the practice would have to make monetary sense; without which no change is practically possible. In that vein, the efforts of Fargreen proves that it is possible to address the question of climate-induced changes that are affecting rice producing countries all over the world, particularly developing nations. Fargreen’s innovative approach can be scaled up to a national level, it can also be a model that can be replicated in countries such as Bangladesh where farmers face the same problems as their Vietnamese counterparts about what to do with the rice straw.

Although exactly how much rice straw is produced in Bangladesh is not readily available, we have nothing to lose but everything to gain by looking into what is happening in Hai Duong province in Vietnam. If we can avoid producing the noxious smoke and greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere thanks to the burning of millions of tons of our own “waste straw,” if the technique perfected by Ms. Tran’s company is imported to transform this waste-product into a cash-earning product by helping spawn mushrooms which cater to both domestic and foreign markets, generating sales with the potential to earn foreign exchange, surely we can do that. While mushroom may not be a staple in our diet, the potential of growing oyster mushroom for the export market would definitely be of interest to our companies. Last but not the least, the leftover from the mushroom cultivation being reused as bio-fertiliser for the soil should help reduce both dependence on chemical fertilisers and reduce the cost of nourishing farmlands. 

There are many nascent start-up companies in Bangladesh. The country is also home to the largest number of non-profit organisations. Both these sectors are ideally suited to replicate, through foreign tie-ups, to bring best practices from other lands, such as Vietnam, where agricultural practices and conditions are similar to ours. Farming is a sector that is a mainstay in our country (although its share of the GDP may be contracting with the rise of the service sector) and in a country of some 168 million, food security will always feature large. With the loss of farmlands due to climate-induced changes comes loss of livelihoods of farmers, and unless we do more to protect our environment, the loss will not be limited to those who toil the land. Changing attitudes through public service announcements is not going to be enough; we need to find new, innovative ways to combat practices that are harmful to the environment.

mycorrhizal-fungi-fruit
EEM fungi like this Amanita mushroom help soils store more carbon

The soil contains more carbon than all living plants and the atmosphere combined. Now a new study says that a certain type of fungi can help soil hold up to 70% more carbon—with potentially big impacts for the climate

You might be a person who loves to eat a portabello sandwich or one who turns your nose at the sight of a salad bar button mushroom, but no matter your feelings on the gustatory nature of fungal fruit, you’ve got to respect fungi for one thing: Helping to fight climate change in a small but mighty way.

In a new study, scientists found that two certain types of fungi, known as ecto- and ericoid mycorrhizal (EEM) fungi, have the ability to drastically alter how much carbon gets sunk into soil or released into the air by as much as 70 percent. Since soil holds massive amounts of carbon — more than air and plants combined — this has a huge impact on the climate.

Here’s how it works: Nitrogen in soil is what feeds the little microorganisms that break down dead matter and release its carbon back into the atmosphere. But the EEM fungi (not to be confused with a mushroom — the mushroom is the fruit of a fungus) that live in the roots of plants steal some of that nitrogen out of the soil and turn it into nutrients for plants. In the process of stealing it, they’re ridding the soil of nitrogen. So when that plant eventually dies and returns to the soil to be broken down, in places where EEM fungi are present, it’s less quickly turned into carbon that goes back into the atmosphere.

Amanita MushroomThis happens anywhere EEM fungi live — no matter the makeup of the soil, or what the climate of the location is.

The process might sound technical and small-scale, but its implications are significant. No scientist studying carbon cycles has factored in the high carbon capture rates of EEM fungi before. And though it isn’t the most common type of fungus in soil — another type makes up 85 percent of soil — it could still change climate models.

“This study is showing that trees and decomposers are really connected via these mycorrhizal fungi, and you can’t make accurate predictions about future carbon cycling without thinking about how the two groups interact. We need to think of these systems holistically,” Colin Averill, the lead author on the study, said.

The relationship between fungi and climate has always been complex. Some mushrooms are thriving thanks to a changing climate — something scientists still aren’t sure is a bad or good thing. Others, like the EEM fungi, are doing their part to help climate change. In April of 2013, scientists first discovered that mushrooms could be major carbon sinks, sequestering between 40 and 70 percent of the carbon in soil, and burying that carbon deeper down in the soil than if it were coming from the decomposing leaves and needles on a forest floor.

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