Crusading mycologist Paul Stamets says fungi can clean up everything from oil spills to nuclear meltdowns.
“The time to act is now. Waiting for science and society to wake up to the importance of these ancient Old Growth fungi is perilously slow and narrow in vision. The meager attempts thus far may be too little, too late. Unless we collectively pool our resources, the mushroom genome will become increasingly threatened, and therefore, our very existence may be at stake. The loss of these keystone organisms should be an ecological call-to-arms for all concerned about our children’s future and the future of this planet.” -Paul Stamets
Mushrooms may be most famous for their pizza prowess and psychedelic strains, but Paul Stamets, renowned mycologist and mushroom enthusiast, has much loftier visions for everyone’s favorite fungi. He believes that the solution to some of the world’s biggest problems lies in mushroom farming.
More specifically he posits that—mycelium, the tight network of filaments out of which mushrooms grow—are our key to a cleaner planet. Oyster Mushrooms, for example, are extremely effective at breaking down toxic waste and capturing E. coli. By dispersing their mycelium, says Stamets, we could reduce the toxicity of industrial waste while growing food in the process.
According to Stamet, these organic growths may be the perfect solution to our man-made mess: “Mushrooms respond to catastrophic events, and we’re the biggest walking catastrophe that I know of.”
For Paul Stamets, the phrase “mushroom hunt” does not denote a leisurely stroll with a napkin-lined basket. This morning, a half-dozen of us are struggling to keep up with the mycologist as he charges through a fir-and-alder forest on Cortes Island, British Columbia. It’s raining steadily, and the moss beneath our feet is slick, but Stamets, 57, barrels across it like a grizzly bear heading for a stump full of honey. He vaults over fallen trees, scrambles up muddy ravines, plows through shin-deep puddles in his rubber boots. He never slows down, but he halts abruptly whenever a specimen demands his attention.
This outing is part of a workshop on the fungi commonly known as mushrooms — a class of organisms whose cell walls are stiffened by a molecule called chitin instead of the cellulose found in plants, and whose most ardent scientific evangelist is the man ahead of us. Stamets is trying to find a patch of chanterelles, a variety known for its exquisite flavor. But the species that stop him in his tracks, and bring a look of bliss to his bushy-bearded face, possess qualities far beyond the culinary.
He points to a clutch of plump oyster mushrooms halfway up an alder trunk. “These could clean up oil spills all over the planet,” he says. He ducks beneath a rotting log, where a rare, beehive-like Agarikon dangles. “This could provide a defense against weaponized smallpox.” He plucks a tiny, gray Mycena alcalina from the soil and holds it under our noses. “Smell that? It seems to be outgassing chlorine.” To Stamets, that suggests it can break down toxic chlorine-based polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Most Americans think of mushrooms as ingredients in soup or intruders on a well-tended lawn. Stamets, however, cherishes a grander vision, one trumpeted in the subtitle of his 2005 book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Mushroom-producing fungi, he believes, can serve as game changers in fields as disparate as medicine, forestry, pesticides and pollution control. He has spent the past quarter-century preaching that gospel to anyone who will listen.
From something that is so small, so common, and insignificant to us and all the big troubles that the world face, comes groundbreaking advances and solutions. Paul Stamets and his team of researchers have discovered the new technology of using mushrooms and fungi to help improve conditions, to improve the health of this planet.
Below, are some of the ways in which mushrooms can help save the world.
1- Mycoforestry is the employment of fungi to sustain forest communities. It can be used to achieve the following:
- Enhancement of replanted trees
- Economic diversity
- Recovery and recycling of woodland debris
- Preservation of native forests
- Strengthening sustainability of ecosystems