How Can Mushrooms Help Solve Food and Environmental Issues?
By: Sam Burgess
Fungi have been cultivated by humans as a food source for thousands of years, with over 400 known edible varieties. In 2016, United States mushroom growers produced more than 946 million pounds of fresh mushrooms. The protein-rich fruiting fungi are a mainstay for most vegetarians and vegans and they leave lots of room for culinary innovation & experimentation in kitchens everywhere. But what exactly does it take to produce such a volume of product?
Recent research shows that mushrooms are the most sustainable protein source available on the market today. The Mushroom Sustainability Story: Water, Energy and Climate Environmental Metrics 2017, is a 2-year study which records & outlines the environmental impact of 21 domestic mushroom producers, representing one-third of the total fresh mushroom market. The study was conducted by SureHarvest, a leading sustainability analysis research firm based in California.
The study discovered that one pound of mushrooms requires only 1.8 gallons of water and 1.0 kilowatt hours of energy and generates only 0.7 pounds of CO2 emissions (Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan. 2017.). They also found that for each square foot of mushroom production space, an average of 7.1 pounds can be grown annually. This means that for each acre of mushroom production, up to 1 million pounds can be produced!
Compare these metrics to averages for a pound of beef or chicken production, which require 1,799 and 468 gallons of water to produce, respectively (Harris, 2016). Beef and chicken also produce 26 pounds and 5.2 pounds of CO2 emissions, per pound, respectively (Center for Sustainable Systems, University of Michigan, 2017).
A key to the sustainability of mushrooms is the way in which they are grown. Mushroom producers have developed a variety of techniques for growing edible fungi, however, large-scale producers which grow on a year-round cycle require a controlled and precise environment.
The start of the mushroom cycle starts with raw organic materials. These substrates, most commonly soil, straw, or sawdust, provide nutrients for the growing mushrooms. The mushroom spawn (or spores) are purchased from a commercial lab and mixed with the substrate, and placed in a bed/tray, usually stacked by the hundreds.
The mushroom mycelia (little hairlike strands of fungi) grow & spread through the bed, and with proper moisture & temperature control, the first fruiting mushroom pins will pop out of the substrate. Mushrooms double in size daily, require no light to grow and are usually harvested by hand throughout a 16-35 day cycle.
In Rhode Island there is a grower/purveyor known as RI Mushroom Company, which provides high quality mushrooms to farmers markets, restaurants, and home consumers north of New Jersey. They recently received a $325,000 loan from The Business Development Company and the Rhode Island Commerce Corp.’s Small Business Assistance Program for their sustainable initiatives and rapid growth since their founding in 2013.
“We all want to ‘do better’ when it comes to being stewards of the environment. We are humbled to finally measure what we consider a low environmental footprint, but equally motivated to find opportunities to lower it even more.”
-Bart Minor, president and chief executive officer of the United States Mushroom Council.
Mushrooms are the definition of a sustainable protein source, and one that is rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber. They keep CO2 emissions and energy footprints in check, they conserve soil, net high yield under proper conditions, and they can be dried for later use. Mushrooms aren’t only healthy for the plate, but also for the planet.