Mushrooms Could Drastically Cut Fertilizer Use in Agriculture

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Fresh cut mushrooms being collected in a bowl.

Aleksander Rubtsov / Getty Images

Yesterday Mike reported on the use of mushrooms to break down disposable diapers, and the day before I posted a video of how mushrooms can clean up pollution, kill pests and recycle nutrients. 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.

Mushrooms Form Alliances with Plants

Mushrooms growing in the wild on a trunk.

Peter Garner / EyeEm / Getty Images

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.

Urgent Need to Replace Fertilizer Use

Mushroom fertilizer being held in hands.

Singkham / Getty Images

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.

Mycorrhizal Fungi in Permaculture

Mushrooms growing in a garden.

Tatamatidzanov / Getty Images

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.

Fungi as Invasive Species?

Hands picking a huge mushroom in grass.

Stefan Wasner / EyeEm / Getty Images

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. If any readers know of research on this topic, we'd love to hear of it. (Of course the debate over a war on weeds and the use of non-native species is a whole other topic of contention.)

Big thanks to the ever informative Gaiapunk and Punk Rock Permaculture for bringing this research to my attention.