Fungi: The original social network

Health: For more than 450 million years, mushrooms and fungi have grown beneath our feet – serving as ecological connective tissue. Mycelium – found inside of the greater fungal organism – threads its sprawling root structure through the soil, plant bodies, and along river beds to deliver sustenance to all living species. As a result, many ecologists use the term “wood wide web” to describe the complex root systems. These natural social networks not only feed the fungi growing from them but also cleanse the soil of toxins, sequester carbon, and supply fresh nutrients to the surrounding plant life. 

Researchers use the term ‘mycorrhizal symbiosis’ to describe the prosocial relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and plants. 92% of all plant families studied in both agricultural and natural environments form mycorrhizal associations. The fungi create exchange interfaces by wrapping their fine white filaments (hyphae) around plant roots. Here, the two parties strike a deal. Fungi provide essential nutrients that the plant cannot obtain on its own, in addition to defense against drought and pathogens. In exchange, the plant supplies the fungi with food in the form of photosynthesized sugars. 

In recent years, a “shroom boom” has erupted as mainstream interest in fungi grows. It is hard to go a week without stumbling across new articles, podcasts, and documentaries about environmentalists, entrepreneurs, and organizations turning their attention towards mushrooms as a tool to save the planet. Fungi and their substrate (waste) have become crucial ingredients in construction materials, packaging, nutrition supplements, leather alternatives, animal feed inputs, soil amendments, and animal protein substitutes. In the absence of chemical inputs, regenerative farmers can maintain fungal populations to: 

  • Maintain soil health – Mycorrhizas play a critical role in soil aggregation and maintenance through hyphae networking and glomalin (biological glue) production. Through the release of enzymes, these ‘myco-magicians’ do the dirty work necessary to unlock and initiate the cycling of nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable to plants. Ecologists have estimated that the presence of Mycorrhiza increases the number of nutrients a plant’s roots can absorb by anywhere between 10 to 1000 times, depending on the plant and related environmental factors. 
  • Increase crop yield and resilience: Instead of relying on expensive fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides, farmers can utilize arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi to increase the growth and pathogenic resistance of plants. Recent reports have found that inoculating soil with AM fungi delivers a 16% yield increase for cereal grains.
  • Support ‘myco-restoration’: Similar to hemp, mycorrhizae hold the potential to restore biodiversity and heal ecosystems destroyed by years of mining or other extractive industrial operations. The pH level of degraded soil is affected by heavy metal pollution – i.e., aluminum, iron, nickel, lead, zinc, and cadmium. The growth of mycelial networks acts as a natural soil clean-up mechanism – storing and immobilizing toxins. 
  • Create value-added byproducts – Fungi can recycle nearly any carbon-based material, from trees to industrial pollutants, into plant-ready nutrients. And multiple commercial mushroom species – including the oyster, portobello, and shiitake – have been shown to grow on over 200 agricultural residues –  including corncobs, potato leaves, soybean hulls, and more. This unique ability makes mushroom cultivation a complementary practice alongside agroforestry – both as a decomposer and a cash crop. 

Mycorrhizas are found in a range of habitats – including deserts, tropical rainforests, high latitudes and altitudes, and even aquatic ecosystems. It is not an exaggeration when we say that without our fungal friends, almost all the ecosystems on this planet would collapse. Through regenerative agriculture, farmers put the symbiotic relationships between plants, fungi, animals, and the soil itself front and center – using it as a natural tool to shift towards a more sustainable food system.

Watch: Are you looking for a Netflix film to curl up and binge-watch this weekend? Look no further than A Life On Our Planet, a first-hand account of humanity’s impact on nature, narrated by David Attenborough. Calling this his “witness statement” for the environment, Attenborough traces his more than 60-year career as a natural historian, demonstrating how rapidly the world’s biodiversity has deteriorated before his eyes. The film, produced by the World Wide Fund for Nature and Silverback Films, carries a grim warning that time is ticking for the planet. But if we act soon, there is still time to put us back on track for a more sustainable future.