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Fungi (Coriolus versicolor) growing on a tree.

Tree Fungi (Coriolus versicolor) - commonly found on dead wood. Though it's not edible, it does contain polysaccharide-K, widely used for medicinal purposes. 

Credit: ©Daniela White Images

Fungi

Call to action:

Utilize the diverse natural abilities of fungi to support soil and ecosystem health and thereby slow climate change, feed people, and promote a more resilient future. 

Fungi play a crucial role in maintaining soil health and ecosystem function, as well as providing global sources of food and medicine. From molds to yeasts to mushrooms and mycelium, fungi can be found in nearly every habitat, including urban ones. Often overlooked (literally) and underappreciated, these diverse organisms can play a crucial role in mitigating climate change, feeding people, restoring degraded land, cleaning up environmental pollution, and supporting resilient economies. They offer many benefits, such as aiding carbon storage and sequestration, soil regeneration, and ecosystem restoration, as well as supporting Indigenous and traditional foodways. We can create a more sustainable and resilient future by investing in research to understand the role of fungi in our ecosystems, integrating fungi into regenerative agricultural practices, and developing natural products that utilize their many benefits.

Action Items

Individuals

Learn about the diversity of fungi and their roles in a regenerative future. Fungi are one of the five kingdoms of life on earth and exhibit an extraordinary diversity, with 100,000 species identified to date by scientists and a potential of 3.8 million species. There are four main ecological groups of fungi: saprophytic, mycorrhizal, endophytic, and parasitic, which describe their role in the ecosystem, such as decomposition or creating symbiotic relationships with other plants. The diversity of fungi allows them to be used across disciplines, including agriculture, medicine, biotechnology, and environmental restoration. Understanding and conserving fungal diversity is essential for harnessing their full potential and ensuring the long-term health and functioning of ecosystems. 

  • Fungi are a big part of our planet. In addition to the huge diversity of fungi, they can generate massive underground networks. The largest organism on earth is a fungus (Armillaria ostoyae). Massive sizes are also attributed to mycelium, threads that connect the fungal system to create mycorrhizal networks that transfer key nutrients between individuals and groups of plants. The length of fungal mycelium globally is 450 thousand quadrillion kilometers—half the width of our galaxy.
  • Fungi support carbon storage and climate adaptation. Fungi play key roles in the decomposition of plants, a process that both boosts soil health and carbon storage. Certain types of fungi, such as ectomycorrhizal fungi (root fungi), have been found to help trees absorb carbon dioxide up to 70 percent faster and slow the release of carbon back into the atmosphere. Fungi have also been found to help trees adapt to climate change.
  • Fungi is a food source. Fungi are a source of food globally, such as the many species of mushrooms. Fungi are found in cheeses, bread, beer, wine, cider, rice, and soy sauce. Not only are fungi a staple of Indigenous and traditional cultures but their use as a regenerative source of protein in broader contexts is being explored as global food demands rise.
  • The use of fungi has ancient roots. Indigenous peoples have used fungi for medicinal and spiritual uses for centuries. Here is an overview of Aboriginal uses of fungi in Australia, and here is a story about Indigenous people in North America using fungi to make textiles. Fungi Foundation’s Elders Program aims to capture ancestral uses of fungi and develop an interactive virtual map. 
  • Fungi are critical for ecosystem health. Fungi play an important role in ecosystems, supporting nutrient cycling, carbon storage, human health, ecosystem restoration, and even sustainable materials. One strain—the oyster mushroom—has even been found to clean up pollution, such as crude oil, in a natural, sustainable way. 
  • The bad guys. While fungi have fared poorly in popular culture (such as the infectious fungus that turns people into zombies in The Last of Us), there are some fungi that can cause harm. About two hundred species are toxic to humans, and fungal infections can harm plants, causing billions of dollars in damage to food crops annually. Although these numbers are small compared to the overall quantity of fungal species and their benefits, these diseases are still an issue.

Learn why fungi may be in trouble. The world is facing a biodiversity crisis, with one million species threatened with extinction in the coming decades. It is unclear at this point how many fungi species are imperiled. According to one report, only fifty-six fungi have even been assessed to determine whether they are threatened. The challenge is that mycologists—researchers who study fungi—estimate that only between 3 and 5 percent of the fungal kingdom has been identified. There is a sense of urgency to save fungi before threats such as climate change, overharvesting, or pollution become critical.

Understand the potential uses of mycoremediation. The use of fungi to clean up contaminated environments, such as an oil spill, is called mycoremediation. Supporting mycoremediation initiatives and advocating for their implementation in polluted areas can lead to the restoration of ecosystems and the mitigation of environmental damage. Here is an overview of mycoremediation in combating everything from waste streams to wildfires. Find inspiration in these stories: 

  • The Post-Fire Biofiltration Initiative is experimenting with placing fungi-packed vessels into contaminated waterways post-fire events to filter out chemicals and pollutants as a potential natural solution to help communities and ecosystems heal after fires. You can watch this webinar on the initiative. 
  • Joanne Rodriguez, CEO and founder of Mycocycle, has worked to tackle construction material waste by using the mycelium root structure to detoxify and break down materials. You can learn more about her work here

Go on a foraging walk in your local community. Community events and walks through the woods provide an educational opportunity to learn about fungi in your area and about ethical foraging practices. There are many examples across the globe: 

  • If you are in the UK, United States, or Canada, you can find active local classes and foraging walks here, including Introduction to Wild Mushrooms through Rewild Maine. 
  • Jorge Ferrera, a Brazilian forager, leads a guided food walk which includes an introduction to responsible foraging, identifying fungi on the path, and discussing fungi uses. 

Engage in citizen science to promote fungi knowledge. Participate in citizen science initiatives that focus on studying and documenting fungi. By contributing to data collection efforts, individuals can help expand our understanding of fungal diversity, distribution, and ecological roles.

  • The largest fungi-related citizen science project in North America, known as the Great North American FungiQuest, occurred in 2022. This annual event collected nearly 150,000 observations during the monthlong endeavor. You can join their community to stay engaged and see the release of future events. 
  • Mushroom Observer is an online record and observation platform to help document and identify mushroom species. Their hope is that this can be a “living field guide for mushrooms or a collaborative mushroom field journal.” An online free account is all that is needed to get started. 
  • Pilzfinder is a citizen science web app created by the Mycology Research Society of the University of Vienna. Citizen scientists can use the Mushroomfinder to observe fungus, and observations are then kept in the Australian Mycological Society’s main database. 
  • Mind the Fungi is a citizen science, multidisciplinary (science and art) initiative based in Berlin, Germany, to develop new ideas for mushroom-based materials of the future. The project brought together citizens from Berlin, biotechnology professors, and art and science communicators to build the interdisciplinary field. They published a book.  

Groups

Farmers and Other Landowners

Utilize regenerative agriculture practices that use and benefit fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi often act as ‘carbon brokers’ between plant roots and soil bacteria, making them essential to carbon sequestration efforts. Farmers can adopt mycorrhizal fungi inoculation—a process to introduce fungi into degraded microbial communities—and other techniques that enhance soil health, increase nutrient availability, and reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers (see Regenerative Agriculture Nexus for an overview). Promote partnerships between farmers and mycologists to facilitate the implementation of these practices.

  • One example is the Rodale Institute’s partnership with the USDA to do a Fungus Inoculum Production System to prove environmental and economic benefits to farmers by enhancing mycorrhizae (fungus roots) on farms. See their method for getting started here.
  • Organic farming has also been shown to increase beneficial fungal communities, and even increase crop health and yield. This training manual helps farmers get started in organic farming.

Natural Resource Managers

Prioritize protecting areas with fungal diversity. Fungi could be declining without our knowledge, so protecting known networks is key. Hot spots identified by scientists include the Canadian tundra; the Mexican plateau; high altitudes in South America; Morocco; the western Sahara; Israel’s Negev desert; the steppes of Kazakhstan; the grasslands and high plains of Tibet; and the Russian taiga.

  • Utilize maps of predictive underground ecosystems such as this one and prioritize ecosystems with potentially high areas of mycorrhizal fungi. 

Create sustainable foraging guides for your area. Overharvesting is a major threat to fungi. This can occur for several reasons, including food and medicinal purposes. By establishing best practices for foraging and making them available in managed areas, the public can be more informed of conservation practices. 

  • Provide information on regulations and best practices, such as this mushroom-picking permit information page. This can include things like government regulation, but also resources that highlight regenerative practices, like this guide for mushroom hunting and consumption. 
  • Here is a guide on best practices for mushroom foraging that includes where fungi can be foraged, what the status of foraging is, and information on other regulations. 

Scientists and Researchers

Advance the understanding of fungi’s potential. By conducting studies, sharing findings, and collaborating with other disciplines, research can propel fungi into the mainstream of climate action. Conduct research, and publish, on fungal ecology and fungi’s potential as a climate solution. Investigate the diverse range of fungal species, their functions, and their interactions with other organisms. Explore the use of fungi in bioremediation, carbon sequestration, and sustainable agriculture.

Contribute to the development of innovative applications. Scientists can be key in identifying research and development opportunities for innovative solutions, including keeping knowledge accessible. There are many examples of scientists and researchers advancing our knowledge of fungi for innovation: 

  • One $1 million grant through the Australian Research Council’s Industry Fellowship Scheme was recently awarded for exploring fungi’s use for biomanufacturing. 
  • Scientists in the Netherlands developed a method for growing fungi in such a way that they could create sustainable materials to make objects like chairs, vases, and even slippers. They displayed this work in an exhibit called “A Fungal Future.”

Collaborate with local communities and Indigenous groups. Recognize the traditional knowledge and practices related to fungi held by Indigenous peoples. Engage in participatory research that respects their rights, fosters knowledge exchange, and supports their efforts in preserving fungal biodiversity.

  • Examine any cultural or ethical guidelines when working with Indigenous groups. This example of an Ethical Guideline from the Fungi Foundation’s Elders Program outlines a framework for decision-making and research. 
  • Here is an article that utilized interviews from Wixarika and mestizo communities in Mexico. They gathered information from the communities about classification, uses, and practices regarding mushrooms and were careful to attribute the source.
  • Highlight the cultural importance of fungi to the Indigenous lands and people that are being worked with, like this paper that documented the importance of fungi to Canadian Indigenous peoples.   
  • When using or highlighting Indigenous knowledge of fungi, attribution is key. This journal editor Q&A explores the complexity of Indigenous participation in publishing that is worth considering.  

Companies

Source materials and audit supply chains for sustainability related to fungi and soil health. Companies can develop and promote products that utilize fungi in sustainable ways. This can include myco-materials for packaging or construction, mycoremediation products for environmental restoration, functional foods or supplements derived from medicinal mushrooms, or bio-based alternatives to synthetic chemicals or materials.

  • Ikea has committed to using mushroom-based packaging, rather than styrofoam, in an attempt to reduce their waste. 
  • Here is an article highlighting the role of soil health in the bottom line for B-corporations. Here is a report by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development on the Business Case for Investing in Soil Health. 

Invest in research and development opportunities around fungi for product innovation. Explore the sustainable commercial potential of fungi in various industries, such as bioplastics, biofuels, pharmaceuticals, and construction materials like bricks. Support startups and entrepreneurs working on innovative fungal-based solutions. This article has a map of the fungi industry landscape, and this map provides a landscape of innovative startups focused on using fungi for sustainable solutions that can be used by companies to further investment in priority areas. Many startup organizations are doing exciting work in the fungi innovation space: 

  • Ecovative Design has created products using mycelium, including addressing markets around food, leather, beauty, and packaging. 
  • Korean startup Mycel focuses on the decomposition power of fungi, especially looking at plastic and industrial waste to create a more circular economy. 
  • MycoWorks was born from the use of mushrooms as a material for sculptures. Now, they bring that same artistic inspiration to the fashion industry, where MycoWorks launched the Reishi Fine Mycelium at New York Fashion Week in 2020. 

Governance

Develop fungal conservation policies. Governments can play a pivotal role in supporting fungi as a climate solution by implementing policies and approaches that protect fungal habitats, promote research and development, and provide incentives for the integration of fungi into regenerative practices. There are several examples of governmental policies that begin this work: 

Invest in fungal research and education. Allocating funding for scientific research on fungi, including their ecological roles and potential applications, can unlock their full potential. Additionally, incorporating fungal education into curricula at all educational levels can foster a deeper understanding of their importance and inspire future generations to embrace fungi as a climate solution. This article synthesizes key areas. 

  • More large-scale, multi-institution grants will be required to increase the update of fungi knowledge. This NSF award (the U.S. government’s science-funding arm) provided over $900,000 to consolidate data across 2.3 million specimens. More research will be required specifically on advancing our knowledge about these collections. 
  • Without a standardized curriculum around fungi, organizations outside of the government have provided free resources. Fungi Foundation provides free mycological curriculum and education materials that can be adopted into the classroom for various ages. 

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