Friday, February 25, 2011

Mushrooms Could Be The Answer To World Hunger

A mushroom beginning to emerge from the soil. Photo courtesy: Waldo Jaquith, used under Creative Commons license

Mushrooms are being used in a number of ways to improve the environment naturally. From breaking down disposable diapers to cleaning up pollution, killing pests and recycling nutrients, mushrooms are not just for salads anymore.

Now Science Daily is reporting on research that suggests that seeding agricultural soils with special mushrooms could drastically reduce fertilizer use and help feed the world.

Reporting on research by Ian Sanders of the University of Lusanne, Switzerland, Daily Science informs us that fungi reduce the need for fertilizer in agriculture. Because plants form symbiotic relationships with certain mushrooms, known as mycorrhizal fungi, and because those mushrooms acquire nutrients — and specifically phosphate — and make it available to plants, they act as an extension of plants' root systems, drastically reducing the need for phosphate fertilizers.

Sanders studies mycorrhizal fungi, a type of fungus that live in symbiosis with plant roots. When plants make symbioses with these fungi they tend to grow larger because the fungi acquire the essential nutrient phosphate for the plant. Phosphate is a key component of the fertilizers that fueled the Green Revolution in middle of the 20th century that made it possible then for agriculture to keep up with the growing global population.

"In most tropical soils plants have enormous difficulty in obtaining phosphate and so farmers have to spend a huge amount of money on phosphate fertilizer. Farmers have to add much more fertilizer than in temperate regions and a very large amount of the cost to produce food is the cost of phosphate," says Sanders.

Given the threat that peak fertilizer represents to Global agriculture, and given the fact that the world's population continues to rise, it makes sense that researchers are looking for ways to reduce dependence on artificial fertilizers and increase fertility in soils. Because tropical soils are particularly lacking in mycorrhizal fungi, researchers have been working on biotechnology breakthroughs that allow huge quantities of mycorrhizal fungi spores to be suspended in gel and shipped to farmers around the world. Field tests are currently underway in Colombia to assess the impact of these preparations on crop yields.

It's worth noting that mycorrhizal fungi have long been an obsession of many permaculturists and backyard food growers too. From no-dig gardening to creating perennial polycultures, there are many ways to protect and nurture the fungi within your own soil. It's also possible to buy mycorrhizal fungi to introduce into your garden on a homescale—and you can even purchase cardboard boxes that are embedded with tree seeds and mushroom spores too.

Of course shipping non-native species of fungi around the world and applying them to soils may carry its own risks. The original article does not mention the dangers of upsetting the natural biodiversity of the soil, or releasing potentially invasive species into the wild. A quick Google search brings up research suggesting mycorrhizal fungi have the potential to be invasive, but that they are not likely to be harmful to ecosystems.

Via TreeHugger

No comments: