Why Mushrooms Can Save The World

2020 Blogposts_Beyond sustainable

When walking behind my house, I found this rhizomorph, which I believe is from a honey mushroom called Armillaria mellea, and it reminded me of the amazing world that we know so little about.


First, take a guess: What was the largest thing to ever live on earth?

If you thought a blue whale or any other gigantic animal, you will be surprised to know that the current record holder is a mushroom that covers 2200 acres and is thought to be 2000 years old. It eats entire groves of trees. Colloquially named the Humongous Fungus, this Armillaria ostoyae specimen lives in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon. There are several other gigantic honey mushrooms in Oregon and Washington, and this one just happens to be the biggest one we know of today. The mushrooms that we think of are the fruiting body of the organism - like an apple. The main body, the mycelium, lives underground, in decaying wood, even in dead animals. The Humongous Fungus is bigger than a blue whale yet is only one cell wall thick.

I grew up foraging a few mushrooms and have always liked eating them, but it wasn't until I moved to North Carolina that it developed into a full-blown obsession. Running across Paul Stamet's TED talk solidified a lifelong passion for these little understood and underappreciated organisms. Did you know that there are 8 miles of mycelium in a cubic inch of healthy soil? That's amazing!

Going Beyond Sustainable

My focus, shaped by Cradle to Cradle, is on being better than sustainable. I believe that we need to replace all single-use plastics with biodegradable products and be better at reusing. Remember it's: reduce, reuse, and finally recycle. If we fail at all of those, then we have no choice but to landfill it. Recycling has been branded as a better solution than it is, especially if you consider the abysmal rate of only 9% of plastics being adequately recycled. According to a sign on a bus in London, 50% of the trash in the Thames is single-use plastic. We know this is a problem, and we now need to act upon it. But let's rewind, I'm getting off-topic...

To be better than sustainable, we need to have our effluent (outputs) be cleaner than our influent (inputs), but this is not commonplace. Our waterways are so polluted due to factories being built along rivers and lakes where they can conveniently pump water from and return effluent into those bodies of water. Clean river water was brought in, contaminated in some industrial process (like making paper), and then discharged back into the waterways. Even though this is a largely outdated practice, there are still long-lasting effects of contamination )like the superfund site in downtown Portland) we still pump our waterways full of E. coli (human and pet waste), phosphorous (agriculture and lawn fertilizer run-off), and host of other pollutants.

Mushroom Superpowers 

Mushrooms have proven to be very good partners for remediating contamination. In the typical workflow, mushroom mycelia are grown throughout the contaminated material. 

The fruiting bodies and the mushrooms are harvested and safely disposed of since they have accumulated heavy metals. Other nasty compounds are destroyed as the mycelia eat them (one promising example is nerve gas being destroyed by a mushroom that wants the phosphorus contained within the toxic molecule). The contaminated material is now a bit cleaner (although, wouldn't it be nice if we didn't use so many materials that are toxic to us?). Mushrooms are even being researched for neutralizing radiation. While it's worth noting that bacteria and plants are great allies in remediation projects, there is much more work needed to undo the damage that we've done in the last two centuries.

As we grow our partnership with TreeFolks, one of our non-profit partners, we also look to our fungal friends to help us expand the good that Praecipio Consulting can do in the world. Fungi are ubiquitous. They make our food better. They make our brains smarter. They make our medicine more potent. They make plants healthier. They absorb a lot of CO2. So basically, mushrooms really can save our world.