The Sustainability of Mushrooms: Healthy for People and the Planet

Mushrooms are incredible organisms; they grow efficiently and can be used for so many different things, from nourishment to a substitution for plastic. Many other uses are constantly being discovered for this common and robust resource. Growing mushrooms, eating mushrooms, and trying out newly developed mushroom products is a great way to aid the planet, sustain your own health, and provide support to those who are finding simple and sustainable ways to provide us with the food and products we need.

Mushrooms Are Sustainable to Grow

Mushrooms are an extremely sustainable crop. Growing mushrooms is much easier on the environment than most other types of agriculture and farming. They have a unique ability to convert the waste and byproducts from other forms of agriculture into nutrients that they can live and grow off of, making them an exceptionally efficient crop. For example, it can take as little as 2 gallons of water to grow, harvest, and process 1 pound of button mushrooms, while it takes about 50 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of most other fresh vegetables. Growing mushrooms also requires only a very small quantity of electrical power, and the carbon dioxide emissions from mushroom agriculture is very, very low. They can be grown all times of year, don’t require much space for cultivation, and don’t consume many resources. They’re the perfect crop for sustainable agriculture and limiting environmental impact.

The Reasons Behind Mushrooms’ Sustainability

The reason mushrooms are so incredibly sustainable is because they’re different from other types of agriculture. They require a lot less water to grow compared to other kinds of agricultural products. The entire process of growing, providing climate-controlled facilities for, and harvesting mushrooms produces a fraction of the carbon dioxide gasses produced during the production processes of most other foods, especially meats. They can produce high food yields from small plots of land, while extracting nutrients from composted materials and agricultural byproducts without needing expensive fertilizers and nutrient additives.

The growing process behind mushrooms is one of the most unique in the agricultural industry. Hundreds of millions of pounds of fresh, healthy food can be produced with very low environmental impact. In fact, mushrooms’ ability to thrive in recycled compost that otherwise would simply be discarded allows it to create a sustainable food resource for itself.

The Potential in Farming Mushrooms

Besides the environmental impact, there are many opportunities provided by mushroom cultivation. A large crop of mushrooms can easily be produced on a small amount of land, and a mushroom crop matures much more rapidly than most others. For example, it only takes one month for a crop of oyster mushrooms to fruit and become ready to harvest and ship to consumers. It’s also relatively inexpensive to build the housing mushrooms need to grow throughout the year, and no high-tech equipment or machinery is required to cultivate mushrooms. The amount of labor required to grow and harvest mushrooms is also very manageable for small farmers with limited staff. This all means mushrooms are a very versatile, and even lucrative option for small farmers in locations all over the world.

Another great example of the versatility, sustainability, and adaptability of mushroom cultivation comes from a brewery in Namibia that uses the organic waste from their brewing process as a substrate to grow mushrooms. This not only produces a crop of nutrient-rich mushrooms out of a resource that would otherwise get discarded, but it transforms protein-filled brewery byproducts into something with additional uses after it has hosted mushrooms, such as feed for livestock. It’s innovative practices like this that make use of the full capabilities of mushrooms to extract nutrients and energy from byproducts.

Other Uses for Mushrooms

Mushrooms can also be used in a lot of ways other than food. Because they’re so easy to grow and cultivating them is so friendly towards the environment, mushrooms are a much better option as a production material than what we currently use to manufacture many household products. Since the positive environmental impact of mushrooms is unparalleled, any way in which they can be substituted for existing materials, such as plastic, in the production of various household goods is a great step forward.

There are a number of innovative ways mushrooms are being used as substitutes for other materials in products. New non-edible uses for mushrooms include building materials such as mycelium bricks, leather alternatives, various components of shoes and clothing, compostable packaging, biodegradable insulation, and meat alternatives. In all of these cases, the material replaced by mushrooms is much more damaging to the environment. For example, replacing non-biodegradable plastics with biomaterials from mushrooms, such as the tough, fibrous, but fully compostable mycelium created by a thriving mushroom colony, is a much more sustainable and constructive use of earth’s fragile resources.

Mushrooms Instead of Plastics

Plastics are a bane to our planet’s ecosystems and ecology. The resource intensive and polluting process used to produce plastics stands in contrast to the resource efficient process of cultivating mushrooms. Innovative and cutting-edge businesses are now just beginning to harness the latent possibilities of mushrooms, using them as building blocks for everything from Styrofoam substitutes to furniture. They are using the mycelium from mushrooms to create a reusable, resilient material that rivals plastic in its ability to take on any shape and perform almost any structural function. Environmental agencies have been quick to realize the huge potential in this industry, and through the support of such organizations as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), this budding production process is flourishing.

What It Takes to Grow Mushrooms

Mushroom agriculture often takes place in facilities specifically adapted to this process. It’s a continuous process since mushrooms can be grown year-round in enclosed facilities, with new crops planted almost every day. Usually housed in large buildings or warehouses, mushroom agriculture is very space efficient since mushroom beds can be stacked on top of each other, reaching to the ceiling and taking up all available space in the damp, dark environment they thrive in.

The most important part of ensuring a good mushroom crop is to make sure the mushrooms’ compost is full of the proper nutrients. The amazing thing about mushrooms is they can extract nutrients from material otherwise considered unusable. For example, a typical mushroom farm in Tennessee creates its compost out of discarded stable bedding, straw, sawdust, and even cocoa shells, with manure added as a fertilizer. This compost is then left to mature, as the raw components break down into nutrients the mushrooms can absorb. After this, mushrooms are directly seeded into the compost substrate and covered with layers of moss, limestone, and water. In this ideal environment, it only takes mushrooms about 31 days to fully fruit, then get picked and eaten.

Mushrooms Are Healthy

Besides being good for the planet, mushrooms are also packed full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients. They’re also free of fat, oxidants, and other harmful substances that are found in lots of other foods. Eating mushrooms is a great way to get more vitamins and minerals into your diet.

There are several types of vitamins and minerals found in mushrooms. Antioxidants are in mushrooms in large quantities in the form of selenium. Beta glucan is a form of soluble dietary fiber that’s present in the largest amounts in oyster and shiitake mushrooms. B vitamins riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid are also found in all types of mushrooms. The essential mineral copper is also plentiful in mushrooms as is Potassium. What this means is that by eating mushrooms, you receive benefits to your heart health, nerve and muscle function, red blood cell health, skin health, and cholesterol levels.

More Mushroom Health Facts

Besides the essential vitamins and minerals that can be found in all types of mushrooms, there are additional nutrients that make mushrooms a very healthy food choice. Nutrients such as polysaccharides, indoles, polyphenols, and carotenoids are abundant in mushrooms and when eaten contribute to health through their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anticancer effects. Mushrooms also contain the substance ergosterol, which can result in mushrooms containing high levels of vitamin D if they’re exposed to ultraviolet light while being grown. If you see the UVB label on mushroom packages for sale in grocery stores, those mushrooms contain D vitamins which contribute to bone health. Studies have also shown that a diet containing mushrooms has the potential to improve gut health and reduce the risk of cognitive disease.

Anti-Aging Properties of Mushrooms

Recent studies have shown that high levels of antioxidants found in mushrooms can contribute significantly to overall health and slowing the aging process. Mushrooms have been identified as the highest dietary source of the important antioxidants ergothioneine and glutathione. Incorporating antioxidants into your diet reduces the risk posed by free radicals and oxidative stress, as antioxidants greatly reduce the damage caused to cells by free radical oxygen atoms. Studies showed that, while all varieties of mushroom contain these essential antioxidants, porcini mushrooms contain the highest concentration. Current data also indicates there may be a correlation between the presence of these antioxidants in a population’s diet and a lower incidence of neurodegenerative diseases.

The Many Benefits of Mushrooms

Mushrooms are a truly amazing element of the natural world. They’re good for us when eaten and can easily be farmed in an environmentally friendly way. They contain a lot of potential to transform the way we eat, grow our food, and live our lives. Often seen only as an optional side dish, mushrooms are actually a tasty, versatile food that’s packed with essential vitamins, minerals, and health benefits. And mushrooms’ amazing properties go beyond just food. Exploring the many uses of this sustainable resource is a great way to ensure we are taking care of the planet and the amazing natural environment we’ve been given, that contains such amazing organisms as the humble mushroom.∏

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