In this illustrated report, we explore how the Organic Seed Alliance is working with local farmers, scientists, and chefs to adapt crops to new environments—and the changing climate.
March 11, 2021
Behold the (mostly) hidden kingdom of life. Its members number approximately 2.2 to 3.8 million species, the vast majority of which have not yet been described or named. Some are invisible, buried under the earth and inside rotting trees. Some grow above ground. Others appear and disappear. Some taste great; others can kill you.
Despite their mysterious nature, fungi—a category that includes molds, mushrooms, yeasts, lichens, mycorrhiza, and mildews—are essential to human life and play crucial ecological functions. They have also been shown to help people solve a wide range of problems, from oil spills to clinical depression to food insecurity. Yet they are vastly understudied and misunderstood.
Journalist Doug Bierend spent five years exploring fungi and the emerging subcultures that have formed around them for his new book, In Search of Mycotopia: Citizen Science, Fungi Fanatics, and the Untapped Potential of Mushrooms.
Civil Eats spoke with Bierend about fungi’s under-recognized status, their role as a catalyst in emergent social movements, and what it takes to grow and forage for mushrooms while furthering the ideas they inspire.
I was born in Eastern Europe and have distinct memories of going on mushroom forays with my grandfather. I remember the mushrooms strung together on threads, air-drying in my grandparents’ tiny kitchen, their fruity smells wafting through the house. You write that in North America, people have negative associations with them or think they’re dangerous, a nuisance. Why is this?
I think there are a lot of factors at play. It’s a cultural inheritance, an Anglo mentality or attitude towards fungi. You can see fungi portrayed in Shakespeare, in other literature, and turns of phrase as disgusting, associated with death and decay (as if those last two were bad things). The specter of decay and death may come from certain parts of Europe and certain historical experiences. The potato blight that led to the Irish Potato Famine in which millions died, for example, was caused by a fungus-like pathogen. So some specific events or cultural trends led to the people who settled this land holding negative attitudes and bringing them to the New World. The Indigenous relationship with fungi in North America, which I’m not qualified to speak about at any depth, seems to be a lot less antagonistic.
Yes, there are practical reasons to be weary of fungi. If you’re a logger, you don’t want to see your valuable timber compromised by pathogenic fungi. If you’re building a house or working with food, you don’t want mold to grow. It’s obvious why people associate mold with trouble, but mold is just a tiny sliver of the reality of fungi and how we can relate to them.
Why should Americans care more about fungi?
They are the reason you’re alive, in large part. They’re ubiquitous, fundamental, and fascinating. They play key roles and are often overlooked in those roles, for reasons of cultural disdain. They hold many insights into how nature works and how we might live in better accord with her. It’s incredible how useful fungi are and how those uses are only just being uncovered.
Fungi can help us provide food and medicine to communities that don’t have access to them. They are already the source of many of our pharmaceuticals [penicillin, for example, is used to make antibiotics], and could be the basis for new materials for textiles and green construction. They may also be able to help us clean up oil spills. They’re an entire universe, a kingdom of life that has yet to be uncovered.
Why did science neglect fungi for such a long time?
In a historical sense, it comes down to the maturity of the natural sciences when they were being formalized. The British were a particularly important influence, with the formation of the Royal Society, the founding of botanical gardens, and the colonial botany project that was undertaken by the U.K. and other imperial powers to document life on earth and to exploit its natural resources, especially in the colonies.
Fungi were categorized as a subset of plants and they were not prioritized. If you think of what scientists studied at the time, it was the plants and animals that counted as spoils for the kingdom or ones promising a source of income. I don’t think people had the wherewithal to think of fungi as useful. That helped keep fungi as a marginal class of organisms until science began to recognize the valuable roles they play.
At the same time, amateur scientists were doing experiments on fungi. They set up the early forms of mycological clubs, but they operated on the margins, mostly outside scientific institutions. [Mycological comes from “myco,” a Greek word meaning mushroom or fungus.]
The dawning of formal science in the Victorian era, which coincided with the invention of the microscope and the formation of scientific societies to elevate these new technologies, helped fungi become a discrete area of focus. But it wasn’t until 1969 that fungi were identified as a distinct kingdom. It was Robert Whittaker, an American plant ecologist who first proposed the five-kingdom classification of the world’s biota, which includes fungi. [Up to seven kingdoms are now recognized.]
What really marked a turning point was the mainstreaming and refining of DNA sequencing technologies over the past three decades.
Part of the problem is that looking for fungi as a scientist is largely a matter of luck. Many fungi don’t express themselves as mushrooms. They are actually invisible. They live within the cells of plants or other organisms and no human eyes ever observe them. We can only find them via recently developed techniques like metagenomics, which take a sample of organic matter such as soil or dung and tease out the DNA codes common to fungi.
Despite the fact that human eyes can’t perceive them, fungi are everywhere. And we’re just starting to recognize that. But the picture this paints is still too complex for science to encompass or articulate.
Can you talk about the role of “citizen” or community science in helping us learn more about mushrooms and how the idea of formal expertise has been complicated when it comes to fungi?
Social media, cameras, and DNA sequencing that you can carry in your pocket have made it so that anyone can [learn abut fungi]. And it’s a great benefit. All of these people, whether they’re scientists or not, have the means of documenting fungi, through apps like iNaturalist [and countless others], documenting, identifying, and building a knowledge base around those organisms. You don’t have to have a degree to contribute to the project of understanding fungi.
In fact, institutional science is leaning more and more on citizen science. They both recognize the value of specialists, experts, and access to expensive equipment. But fungi are ephemeral and can be hard to spot, so having a bunch of people who can upload photos of interesting mushrooms . . . is like a force multiplier for institutional science. And as science is funded less robustly, the non-academic might be the only person left to do it.
What is radical mycology culture and where does it happen?
Radical Mycology is a grassroots movement based in the Pacific Northwest; the term was coined by its founder Peter McCoy, who also wrote a book of the same title. But it’s also a facet of a much broader and diverse “mycoculture,” which focuses on working with mushrooms to heal our landscape and waterways, foster food security and medicinal sovereignty, and build a better relationship with nature and one another.
The radical mycologists hold a convergence every few years, mostly in Oregon and upstate New York. But the movement is happening all over the country, as well as outside our borders in places like Canada and Ecuador. Other groups include Fungi For the People, the POC Fungi Community, Bay Area Applied Mycology, Central Texas Mycological Society, Myco Alliance, MycoSymbiotics, and the New Moon Mycology Summit. All these are versions of an approach to fungi as a symbol, a heuristic. Anna Tsing [a professor and the author of The Mushroom at the End of the World] has written that “mushrooms are good to think with.” Basically, this broader movement is taking up fungi as more than just organisms to study or to monetize, but rather as ecological role models, even allies.
In your book, you argue that seeing the fungi movement as just about fungi is kind of like “missing the forest for the mushrooms.” You show that fungi—and the culture that has grown around them—are part of an effort to tackle patriarchy, colonialism, even racism. Can you talk about the social aspects of the fungi movement?
The fact that fungi have been marginalized creates a space where marginalized people are front and center. Radical mycology is serious about “no oppressive language, no othering, or discrimination.” People feel like they have an opportunity to create a space where another vision of society plays out. It’s a project to elevate fungi, but also to elevate a set of values and to smuggle them into the scientific process. The goal is to change the character of local agriculture, environmental mediation, and food systems to reflect values that are easily termed as progressive . . . although this movement feels outside of politics and there are a lot of political views represented in those spaces.
It’s interesting that we’re discovering fungi at a time when we’re also questioning all of our systems. The radical in radical mycology points out how out of whack our society is. Because there’s really nothing radical about saying we should heal the planet or allow everyone to participate in science.
Are the members of this movement practicing what they preach?
It depends on the group. The gathering I attended with POC Fungi Community in San Diego was organized by people of color. It seemed to be an example of 100 percent community agency. For them, fungi is traditional medicine, something they feel a cultural connection to. At the same time, they feel alienated from all that is emerging around that medicine as it is being seized by capital. So, in that instance, I saw a community taking it upon themselves to organize and decide what fungi represent to them and how they want to relate to them.
But it’s also easy to throw diversity around like a catch-all term. At certain events, I witnessed some tensions around whether the event was truly inclusive or representative. To me, the most encouraging aspect was that I was hearing dissent and disagreement rather than feeling completely comfortable as a cis-white male. That’s not something I experience at a lot of gatherings. I took it as a productive thing.
As you just mentioned, in recent years mushrooms have become increasingly popular and have moved toward the mainstream. Is there a fear that the growing popularity could change the fungi movement, strip it of its values and social appeal? That it could lead to inequity and disenfranchisement?
It’s a valid concern and I share it. As soon as capital enters the picture, it reshapes the landscape. There’s a lot of financial opportunity emerging around fungi in various areas. So there is wariness among these communities, where members are motivated by deepening fellowship and resilience and furthering concepts that run counter to the extractive logic of capitalism. There’s an inherent resistance to the trend [factor] that every new, exciting, and potentially profitable thing is subject to.
At the same time, fungi’s popularity is a product of some people’s recognition that our systems are failing us. Fungi are offering alternative ways of producing materials, food, medicine, and showing us new ways of existing in relationship to ecologies. They are fostering communities that are subversive and that exemplify priorities other than wealth accumulation.
My hope is that the community side of the trend will outpace the [companies] that are moving to make a killing on therapeutic psychedelics and the medicinal mushroom market. When it comes to the culinary specialty mushroom boom, there is a built-in dynamic that favors locality. Because those mushrooms don’t travel well, people are growing them on small or medium scales for their communities. That’s why a huge aspect of the emerging mycoculture is taking place in the realm of mushroom cultivation.
A lot of the mushrooms that are sold are still foraged. If you go to high-end restaurants that serve oyster mushrooms or maitake, they’re likely using forest mushrooms. There’s a robust foraging economy. At the same time, people are learning how to cultivate mushrooms that were once thought of as uncultivable. Communities are forming online that are sharing tips and advice. You can grow culinary mushrooms in your basement or in your closet. One of the people I spoke with, Julia Coffey of Mycoterra Farm—now the largest mushroom cultivator in Massachusetts—started growing them in her basement.
These mushrooms sold for food and medicinal purposes are not exactly inexpensive or available to everyone. How does that square with the vision of equity that the movement is trying to advance?
Everyone who is preaching about natural food and medicine has to acknowledge that only certain people can afford it. There’s a tension there. But I believe a lot of the people advancing the methods to grow mushrooms cheaply, through low tech/no-tech cultivation methods, want to see those methods become accessible to everyone, including communities of color. William Padilla-Brown, a young [African-American] man who figured out how to cultivate the rare Cordyceps militaris, a medicinal mushroom, published a handbook on his techniques, hoping to get as many people as possible to grow it and benefit from it, which could lead to the emergence of a local Cordyceps market and a drop in prices. [Padilla-Brown is now working on releasing the second volume of the handbook.] So there is a conceptual basis for the notion that we might be able to democratize food with fungi.
Let’s talk about the techniques and practices of DIY mushroom cultivation and collection. If someone who knows nothing about mushrooms would like to start growing or foraging for them, where should she start?
It’s a rich question. If you’re curious and want to try growing them, you can get a grow kit. They’re very easy to find. It’s an add-water situation, and you can grow them in your closet or basement. Caring for mushrooms is similar to tending to a houseplant. But it’s also a mind-expanding experience and they don’t have to be psychedelic.
My favorite mushroom to grow is shiitake. The oyster mushroom is the most common go-to for the first-time mushroom cultivation because it’s such a resilient mushroom. With a shiitake, on the other hand, you need to put a tent over it and keep it humid.
Those who cultivate mushrooms and teach workshops also often lead forays to introduce people to mushrooms in the field. An easy resource is to look up your local mycological society. Through them, you can find out who is growing and teaching about mushrooms in your area. This is happening everywhere. If you’re moved by the social justice dimension, see if you live near one of the gatherings I documented in the book.
Be aware that the first step with mushrooms is always just the first step; they pull people in. My entire worldview was transformed by walking into the forest and recognizing that I could walk out with all the food I needed for that day. Just learning what fungi are, how they operate, the roles they play, and all the things you can do with them can set up the stage for the next questions: why are they doing these things? What else do they do? What about the trees they associate with? Then you start thinking about the trees, the state of soil, the microclimate. Looking to mushrooms means looking to a wider ecosystem.
I have to ask you about magic mushrooms and their psychedelic qualities. The “shroom” culture has pretty negative connotations. But that may be changing, as there are now clinical trials on psychedelic mushroom therapies for people dying of cancer, those battling addiction, major depression, and end-of-life anxiety. Are fungi the future of our medicine?
It’s a sticky question, I think. Fungi are brought in to serve all these valuable roles, and people are seizing upon their ability to facilitate experiences, either through the traditional cultural rituals, retreat centers, or academic trials [at institutions like Johns Hopkins University]. But I’m hesitant to frame them as the answer or as a solution to anything. To me, if a therapeutic application is distributed along the same lines that every other valuable thing is distributed in our society, it doesn’t change anything. It just means the same people who were going to get the medicine before fungi were big are now going to be able to get the fungi medicine. The people in the POC Fungi Community told me, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford a $500 session to address my depression through fungi.”
The other thing is that there’s nothing new about what’s happening. People talk about “discovering” magic mushrooms in Huautla de Jímenez, Mexico. But these mushrooms had been known for a long time and only recently have been marketized and monetized.
But fungi are also unique in their nature, their cultural import, associations, and history, and there is space to resist that [commodification] trend. My hope is that—as it dawns on us as a society how valuable these organisms are to all life and to the various needs we have—it will happen in a way that recognizes the inequitable distribution of previous natural resources. I put my faith in the communities forming around these fungi to address their needs in equitable ways, more than in the fungi themselves to save us from our patterns of behavior.
What surprised you the most when researching and writing this book?
By far the most promising aspect of fungi is how they bring people together in seemingly unexpected ways. It’s less about any specific technology or technique or ecological function, but rather it’s about the allure they have to get people talking about what’s wrong in their communities.
I hope this book leads people who are curious about mushrooms to find out that there’s another dimension to them. And that the communities that are forming around fungi and the kind of work they’re doing inspire others to start reconsidering the roles they play and how they can gather and organize to improve conditions for themselves and their neighbors. If fungi can help us do that then we can say—unironically—that they helped us save the world.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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