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Does Humanity’s Fate Lie in the Hands of the Fungal Kingdom?

  • Post category:Opinions

In this Opinions piece, Marc Violo takes us beyond the world of psychoactive mushrooms to explore the many ways in which fungi-based solutions are being pursued in a variety of industries: from textiles through to agriculture and carbon storage.

We believe that fungi have silently conducted the symphony of life’s evolution on earth for the past billion years. Starting with a symbiosis with algae, they have brought life to land plants, with an estimated  90% of them exchanging photosynthesized carbon against nutrients extracted from the soil by fungi. Furthermore, according to Terrence McKenna’s Stoned Ape theory, which claims that the cognitive revolution was caused by the addition of psilocybin mushrooms (specifically Psilocybe cubensis) into the human diet a few hundred thousand years ago, fungi may have helped us evolve from mere Homo erectus to the conscious, intelligent being that is Homo sapiens or “the wise human”, the latter category of which I belong to that has enabled me to write this opinion piece.

From ecological restoration to mitigating plastic pollution, fungi have been hailed as potential solutions to some of the most pressing modern-day environmental concerns. Recent audacious headlines from reputable news sources such as the World Economic Forum’s “How fungi could save the world” and the New York Times’ “Unearthing the Secret Superpowers of Fungus” echoed claims that were made a decade ago by the National Geographic on “The Power of Mushrooms to Save the Planet”. This suggests that there is still a long way to go to make the transformative potential of the fungal kingdom a reality in our future. Our optimism about its applications should be tempered by a sober assessment of the practical challenges that lie ahead.

Mycelium-based material companies such as Ecovative, the patent-backed industry leader, have been making similarly audacious claims that their bio-inspired alternative could remove polystyrene from our supply chains. Since 2012, they have worked with multinational companies such as Dell, supplying biodegradable mycelium packaging, to answer consumers’ demands for more sustainable packaging. In the past decade, despite not halting its mycelium packaging production, Ecovative diversified its product offering, launching Forager, a mycelium textile subsidiary and MyForest Foods, a mycelium-bacon producer, recently raising more than $30M to fund these new ventures. One would have thought that an organisation that can produce truly sustainable, biodegradable and affordable packaging at scale would undoubtedly become a multi-billion dollar business. What then drove Ecovative to diversify its offering versus drastically scaling its production to make mycelium packaging widely available, in a market bare of any other significant mycelium packaging competition?

A pragmatic analysis is warranted to assess the scalability of these fungi-based solutions. With rigorous research, collaboration, and investment, mushrooms may indeed contribute significantly to addressing some of the world’s most pressing issues. It is our collective responsibility – and my personal goal through MycoStories – to foster an environment where these prospects can be explored and realized, while remaining attentive to the complexities that accompany any paradigm shift. Taking four of the many environmental challenges that fungi could help address, I attempt to separate hype from reality and invite regulators, investors, researchers and entrepreneurs to create the conditions necessary for these nature based solutions to actually keep their promises.

Embracing fungi as allies in our quest for sustainability requires a commitment to rigorous research, technological innovation, and a willingness to navigate regulatory obstacles, without losing sight of what working with fungi has taught us: a lesson of resilience, symbiosis with nature and patience.

Ecological Restoration

The concept of utilizing mushrooms for mycoremediation offers an innovative approach to environmental restoration. The ability of certain fungi to break down oil spills and toxins from both soil and water sources is promising. Paul Stamets initiated trials to address faecal coliform pollution from local livestock using mushroom mycelium (Stropharia rugosoannulata) as a biological filter for the treatment of water pollution in Washington State, and reported a 100-fold reduction in faecal coliform (E. coli) levels in water flowing through the woodchip-fungus bed. However, in the 40 years which have passed since Stamets’ trials, only a handful of small scale projects have been completed, such as the rehabilitation of petroleum-contaminated landscapes in Eastern Ecuador led by the Co:Renewal project, or the cleaning up of polluted surface water and rivers in the UK.

Scaling up mycoremediation to address large-scale environmental disasters requires meticulous consideration. The spatial extent and ecological variability of such pollution catastrophes pose considerable challenges in implementation. Our planet’s soil diversity is akin to the diversity of cultures in the world. Mother Nature is resourceful, but our fungal allies need tailored strategies to thrive in various ecosystems, without disturbing its indigenous bacterial and fungal inhabitants. As Belgium mycoremediation company Novobiom’s co-founder and microbiologist Dr. Caroline Zaoui told me last June, “the lab  controlled conditions that enable successful remediation may not translate seamlessly to real-world scenarios requiring much-more than a one-size-fits-all solution. Overcoming these hurdles necessitates extensive trials and careful monitoring, adapting the choice of fungi to diverse environments and their inherent microbial communities, and a thorough understanding of their overall ecological implication at scale”.

Mycelium-based Textiles

Consider the prospect of wearing garments that are grown rather than sewn, woven from the intricate threads of mycelium, crafting fabrics with minimal waste and ecological impact. This visionary concept holds the potential to reshape the fashion industry, offering a sustainable alternative to resource-intensive animal leather manufacturing practices. Transitioning from conventional textiles to mycelium-based fabrics is like orchestrating a symphony with instruments few people know how to play with.

This is illustrated by recent news headlines from the U.S. mycelium textile industry. MycoWorks, a U.S. based mycelium leather manufacturer, announced the launch of the world’s-first commercial-scale mycelium leather production plant this September. The 136,000 square foot factory is set to employ more than 350 people, enabling MycoWorks to supply its luxury fashion brand partners with millions of square feet of reishi-based leather per year. A month before this announcement, Fast Company published an article about promising biotech startup Bolt Threads, which, after raising US$334 million since 2009, decided to halt their mycelium leather  production. While they were “devastatingly close” to commercial scale, CEO Dan Widmaier explained that inflation and waning funding opportunities eventually brought the company to a standstill.

Working with mycelium at scale requires scientific and operational expertise along with a mountain of R&D to hone the complexities of standardizing living material. Based on dozens of personal conversations with entrepreneurs about the challenges of scaling fungi-based solutions, the mycologists and engineers capable of navigating the aforementioned complexities are a rare commodity on the global market. These challenges can all be overcome with a combination of more open-access research, long-term investor backing and cross-industry talent recruitment, exemplified by MycoWorks’ VP of Manufacturing hire, Anthony Saucedo, ex Procter & Gamble veteran.

Myco-protein Revolution

In the ever-evolving landscape of dietary choices, myco-protein is (re)emerging as a compelling contender amongst other plant-based meat alternatives, due to the mushroom’s texture, fibrous nature and nutritional value. These fungi-derived protein sources present an opportunity to revolutionize our nutritional habits while potentially alleviating the environmental strain of traditional meat production. Recent research showed that switching out just a fifth of the beef we eat in favour of “alternative” beef made from fungi could halve deforestation globally and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss.

Quorn, pioneer and market leader, launched its first product in 1985. Since then, other myco-protein start-ups are proliferating like spores across the globe. MycoStories has identified more than 60 such companies in our latest fungi ecosystem map. Amongst them, only Nature’s Fynd and MycoTechnology have managed to raise more than US$100 million since their launches a decade ago, which suggests that innovation is a long-term process. What may expedite this is having a platform that fosters the sharing of knowledge and representation like the new trade group, Fungi Protein Association, who are instrumental in advocating for public policies that can help get new products on the market. This can support companies that might already be making strides in fungi-based meat or animal feed substitute development, positioning them as stories of success, which will drive greater investment and regulatory credibility.

Agriculture and Carbon Storage

With over 15,000 articles referenced in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the role of fungi in enhancing agricultural and wild plant productivity is well-documented, particularly through the mycorrhizal associations that facilitate nutrient uptake by plants. Mycorrhizal fungi give valuable minerals and water to plants in exchange for sweet carbon sugars from the above-ground flora. As the glomalin rich mycelium develops into the ground it reduces soil erosion and enhances soil nutrient retention, leading to healthier and more resilient plant growth, and reducing the need for chemical fertilizer, all resulting in a greater capacity to store carbon into our soils.

Their role in breaking down organic matter and storing carbon compounds in soil is a highly attractive prospect in our fight against climate change. However, only a handful of organizations have started commercialising such solutions. Pioneers like Loam in Australia or Funga in the U.S. are educating key stakeholders, from farmers, forest landowners, regulators, carbon traders and investors, and hopefully paving the way for other companies to develop similar solutions. Large-scale carbon sequestration using fungi also raises logistical and ecological concerns. Cultivating fungi at the scale required to make a substantial impact may have unintended consequences on ecosystems and nutrient cycling, disrupting the local bacterial fungal equilibrium. Effective carbon sequestration through fungi necessitates a comprehensive understanding of their role within broader environmental systems and the development of ultra-locally adapted strategies. We urgently need trisector collaboration to increase contextual, research based evidence, effective implementation practices and supportive policies from local governments.

The world's challenges are multifaceted; consequently, the solutions must be equally adaptable and nuanced.

In summary, the potential of mushrooms and mycelium to address critical global challenges is both extremely compelling and complex. While initial research and experiments are promising, the journey from laboratory discoveries to scalable, real-world solutions demands investors’ long-term support, interdisciplinary collaboration, and a healthy dose of realism. The world’s challenges are multifaceted; consequently, the solutions must be equally adaptable and nuanced. Embracing fungi as allies in our quest for sustainability requires a commitment to rigorous research, technological innovation, and a willingness to navigate regulatory obstacles, without losing sight of what working with fungi has taught us: a lesson of resilience, symbiosis with nature and patience.

Marc Violo founded MycoStories in 2022, a global fungi innovation network focused on exploring and promoting the applications of fungi for sustainable solutions. MycoStories supports early-stage startups through business and investment strategy. He has over 15 years of international experience, as a director of startups and business units in technology and sustainability.