Do you care about the food system? Take part in our Annual Survey 2024

Take the survey
Earth First

Fungi in Sustainable Food Production

Fungi are not just fun to forage and delicious to eat, they can also be useful for food manufacturers looking to make the food system more sustainable. Discover how fungi can transform our food systems for the better.

Fungi: what are they?

Fungi used to be considered ‘imperfect plants’. However, we now know that they are neither plants nor animals. Instead, fungi exist as an entirely separate kingdom of life. They do not derive energy from photosynthesis, like most plants,  but instead digest organic matter externally before absorbing it into their mycelium, an underground network of filaments.1 While the words ‘fungi’ and ‘mushrooms’ are often used interchangeably, mushrooms are, in fact, the overground part of some fungi. Also called the fruiting body, the mushroom is generally how fungi disseminate spores to reproduce - as well as being delicious to eat. They have long been a favoured ingredient amongst various global communities, chefs and food companies for their hearty texture and umami, meat-like flavour.

Fungi are an extremely diverse group of organisms - both in the number of species and the shapes and sizes they form. While just 120,000 species have been identified and described, there are an estimated 2.2 - 3.8 million species of fungi that range from microscopic yeasts and moulds to one of the largest organisms on Earth – the honey mushroom, found in Oregon, which stretches for 10 square kilometres or the size of 1,665 football fields.2,4 They can even survive in space despite extreme conditions and can grow on a wide range of surfaces.3 

The Armillaria Ostoyae honey fungus,  growing in the Malheur National Forest of Oregon, USA, is one of the largest and oldest living organisms in the world. (DeAgostini/Getty)

When did people start eating mushrooms?

Fungi have been consumed all over the world for millennia. Ancient Romans considered them “food of the Gods”, Greeks and Vikings used them as a booster before war campaigns, while many Indigenous American Peoples consume mushrooms in ceremonial and spiritual rituals.5

Even without an understanding of the biochemical processes, ancient humans leveraged fungal potential to preserve and transform their food and beverages, such as bread and beer. Recent findings in Israel suggest that the familiar fungi known commonly as yeasts were used in food fermentation as early as 11000 BCE.6 Naturally present in the environment, yeasts feed on sugar in cereals or flour, converting it into alcohol and ​​CO2 - the process helping bread rise and beer carbonate. 

Archaeological evidence from Austria suggests that the first blue cheeses were already consumed in Europe during the Iron Age.7 It’s the mould, Penicillium roqueforti, that degrades fats and proteins in milk, creating the distinct blue veins, flavour and smell we all love… or hate. Today, fungi still play a key role in Meju and Soy Sauce fermentation by breaking down soybean macromolecules into smaller nutrients. For example, in Korean cuisine, traditional Meju is a fermented soybean starting material used to make products such as doenjang (soybean paste) and ganjang (soy sauce). It is naturally fermented by bacteria, yeasts, and fungi.29,30 

A sake brew master treats steamed rice with a mould called 'koji' in preparation for brewing sake in Himeji, Japan. (Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty)

How are fungi cultivated?

Large-scale mushroom cultivation started in the 17th century in France with white button mushrooms. It is still the most widely consumed variety in Europe, but shiitake (Lentinuda edodes) is the world's leading cultivated edible mushroom species, representing about 1/5 of global supply.8 It is especially popular in Japan and China, praised not only for its taste but also for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.9 

Fungi can be cultivated on a wide variety of surfaces, including wheat, rice or cotton straw, corncobs, sugarcane, bagasse, coffee and tea leaves, banana skins, potato starch, and even sawdust, paper, and cardboard.10 In addition to degrading and upcycling waste and sidestreams, growing mushrooms on them can provide valuable food and feed.11,12 A good example is the lavender fields in the Mediterranean region that are used to produce essential oils. Traditionally, leftover straw was considered agricultural waste with little value, often burned. Nevertheless, research has shown that it can be used as a substrate for white-rot fungi that produce valuable enzymes and for oyster mushrooms that can be harvested commercially.13 Although mushroom growth rates are slower than when using barley straw, the mushrooms contain compounds with antioxidant and pharmaceutical properties.14 Fungi can also be used to turn food waste, such as stale bread and apple pomace, into vegan foods high in protein, linolenic acid, and vitamin D.15,16 

You can even try cultivating oyster mushrooms yourself, without any sophisticated equipment, using just toilet paper.17

Learn more about button mushroom farming from the expert

What are the benefits of fungi in traditional agriculture?

Even though most commercially sold mushrooms are cultivated indoors, they can also be grown in the field. As well as providing farmers with an income stream in between major cash crops, growing mushrooms can also benefit soil quality by improving nutrient cycling. Furthermore, by decomposing dead organisms and recycling nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, fungi help new plants grow by providing them with the nutrients they need.18

Additionally, some fungi form beneficial interactions with plants by enhancing their photosynthetic capacity and improving their ability to uptake water and nutrients from the soil around them, reducing the need for chemical fertilisers and excessive irrigation.19 Research suggests that mycorrhizal fungi also reduce soil erosion by binding soil particles into solid aggregates and boosting plants' immunity to pathogens.20

Serendipitously, many of the most sought-after mushrooms, such as morels, chanterelles and truffles, are mycorrhizal fungi.

Check out this article to learn more about how truffles are grown

What role do fungi play in food manufacturing?

The production and processing of many modern foods depend on enzymes and acids. As well as adjusting pH and extending shelf life, acids can also be used to enhance flavours and leaven foods. While enzymes degrade complex compounds, they also ensure better texture, taste, and digestibility.21

While these enzymes and acids can be obtained from plants or animals, these methods tend to be unsustainable, costly, and cannot satisfy the growing demand for them. One example is citric acid, the common additive used to preserve many canned and jarred foods. Citric acid creates a hostile environment for bacteria, preventing major food-borne diseases like botulism.22 Citric acid was first isolated from citrus fruits in the 18th century. However, today instead of sacrificing entire lemons, cheap side-stream materials such as fruit peels or cotton waste can be fermented by the Aspergillus niger fungi, a black mould, to produce it more efficiently.23

Enzymes help break down complex compounds, such as proteins or fats and accelerate chemical reactions.24 For example, in cheese production, liquid milk is coagulated, creating solid curdles that are then separated and further processed. This reaction is mediated by an enzyme - chymosin, which used to be extracted from calf stomachs. Nowadays, chymosin is produced either by bacteria or fungi in bioreactors, a method that is significantly less costly and far more energy-efficient without competing for land usage or killing animals. Overall, fungi now account for more than half of the enzymes produced worldwide, contributing to the production of not only cheese but also tea, coffee, fruit juices, bread, and meat products, as well as numerous other applications outside the food industry.24,25

Is fungi the new protein alternative?

The bioreactor cultivation of fungi can also be used to produce valuable peptides and proteins both for food and feed. For instance, Quorn®, a UK-based company, uses Fusarium venenatum, a type of fungus that naturally occurs in the soil to produce mycoprotein.25 In addition to being a good source of protein, mycoprotein also contains many vitamins and minerals (e.g. vitamins B2, B9, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc) necessary for a healthy diet.26 Several clinical studies have shown that consuming mycoprotein could help reduce cholesterol levels as well as stimulate muscle gain and regulate satiety.27 However, these studies were usually short-term, focused on a relatively small number of participants, and were funded by Marlow Foods Ltd (the owner of Quorn®). 

Mycoprotein is considered a sustainable food choice due to its efficient nutrient and energy use, as well as its low water and land footprint. According to a study that estimated future population, income, and livestock demand, replacing 20% of beef consumption with mycoprotein could reduce deforestation and CO2 emissions by half by 2050.28  While Quorn® has been commercialising its mycoprotein-based products since 1985, numerous new companies are emerging with the aim to replace both meat and seafood protein with fungal alternatives.

If you're feeling inspired to cultivate your own mushrooms, check out the toilet roll approach below!

Annual audience survey

Do you careabout thefood system?

Take part in our Annual Survey 2024

Take the survey

Related articles

Most viewed

Earth First

The Hidden Cost of Eating Shrimp

Maria Pinto

Shrimp dishes have become a staple food in many households and restaurants around the world, leading…

Earth First

How Do Food Businesses Manage Food Waste?

Madhura Rao

Food can end up as waste before it reaches us for several reasons, whether it’s safety…

Earth First

Can you throw away a microwave?

Jane Alice Liu

So, it's been a while since you last bought a new microwave. It is probably super greasy inside from…

Earth First

Health Claims | The Asterisk: Friend or Foe?

Dr Chris Ryder

The humble asterisk (*) has many uses, one of which is to redirect readers to another part of a text…

Earth First

Spirulina | How It’s Grown

Katharina Kropshofer

The blue-green algae spirulina might feel like a modern food, but Indigenous people in Mexico and…

Earth First

Building a Future with Crops From the Past

Benedetta Gori

Beyond the familiar fields of wheat, rice, and maize lies a forgotten realm of diverse crops that…

Human Stories

Why Producing More Food Doesn’t Mean Less Hunger

Lauren Lewis

Our population hit the 8 billion mark in November 2022 and is projected to top 10 billion by 2050.…

Earth First

Lost Wonders of a Waterless Wetland

Andrei Mihail

When you picture a swamp, food is probably the last thing that springs to mind. But wetlands play a…

Human Stories

Who Pays the Price of Food Inflation?

Aran Shaunak

I don't need to tell you that we're in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. The food sector is…

Earth First

Probiotics: The Science Behind Good Bacteria

Carolina Moyano

Probiotics are often found in fermented foods, but not all fermented foods contain probiotics.…

Earth First

Figs & Wasps | How are Figs Pollinated?

Molly Melvin

If you're anything like me, you've probably given little thought to figs - aside from how delicious…

Earth First

Calculating Food Expiry Dates

Keeren Flora

Food expiration dates help us to plan meals and reduce food waste. Discover the science behind those…

  1. Lovett, R. Space station mold survives 200 times the radiation dose that would kill a human. Science (2019) doi:10.1126/SCIENCE.AAY5644. Accessed 19 July 2022.
  2. Hawksworth, D. L. & Lücking, R. Fungal Diversity Revisited: 2.2 to 3.8 Million Species. Microbiol Spectr 5, (2017). Accessed 19 July 2022.
  3. el Sheikha, A. F. el. Nutritional Profile and Health Benefits of Ganoderma lucidum “Lingzhi, Reishi, or Mannentake” as Functional Foods: Current Scenario and Future Perspectives. Foods 11, 1030 (2022). Accessed 19 July 2022.
  4. Liu, L. et al. Fermented beverage and food storage in 13,000 y-old stone mortars at Raqefet Cave, Israel: Investigating Natufian ritual feasting. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 21, 783–793 (2018). Accessed 22 July 2022.
  5. Maixner, F. et al. Hallstatt miners consumed blue cheese and beer during the Iron Age and retained a non-Westernized gut microbiome until the Baroque period. Current Biology 31, 5149-5162.e6 (2021). Accessed 21 July 2022.
  6. Royse, D. J., Baars, J. & Tan, Q. Current Overview of Mushroom Production in the World. Edible and Medicinal Mushrooms 5–13 (2017) doi:10.1002/9781119149446.CH2. Accessed 19 July 2022.
  7. Diallo, I. et al. Antioxidant and Anti-Inflammatory Potential of Shiitake Culinary-Medicinal Mushroom, Lentinus edodes (Agaricomycetes), Sporophores from Various Culture Conditions. Int J Med Mushrooms 22, 535–546 (2020). Accessed 21 July 2022.
  8. Akter, M. et al. Utilization of Agro-Industrial Wastes for the Production of Quality Oyster Mushrooms. Sustainability 2022, Vol. 14, Page 994 14, 994 (2022). Accessed 19 July 2022.
  9. Lübeck, M. & Lübeck, P. S. Fungal Cell Factories for Efficient and Sustainable Production of Proteins and Peptides. Microorganisms 2022, Vol. 10, Page 753 10, 753 (2022). Accessed 19 July 2022.
  10. Ibarruri, J., Cebrián, M. & Hernández, I. Valorisation of fruit & vegetable discards by fungal submerged and solid-state fermentation for alternative feed ingredients production. Journal of Environmental Management 281, 111901 (2021). Accessed 21 July.
  11. Lesage-Meessen, L. et al. Lavender- and lavandin-distilled straws: An untapped feedstock with great potential for the production of high-added value compounds and fungal enzymes. Biotechnology for Biofuels 11, 1–13 (2018). Accessed 19 July 2022.
  12. Piazza, Simone di, Mirko Benvenuti, Gianluca Damonte, Grazia Cecchi, Mauro Giorgio Mariotti, & Mirca Zotti. 2021. “Fungi & Circular Economy: Pleurotus Ostreatus Grown on a Substrate with Agricultural Waste of Lavender, & Its Promising Biochemical Profi
  13. Gmoser, R. et al. From stale bread and brewers spent grain to a new food source using edible filamentous fungi. Bioengineered 11, 582–598 (2020). Accessed 19 July 2022.
  14. Ahlborn, J. et al. Upcycling of food industry side streams by basidiomycetes for production of a vegan protein source. International Journal of Recycling of Organic Waste in Agriculture 8, 447–455 (2019). Accessed 19 July 2022.
  15. How to grow oyster mushrooms at home. Equipment and materials. Accessed 19 July 2022.
  16. Growing mushrooms in the field - Fungalpedia. Accessed 19 July 2022.
  17. Sosa-Hernández, M. A., Leifheit, E. F., Ingraffia, R. & Rillig, M. C. Subsoil arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi for sustainability & climate-smart agriculture: A solution right under our feet? Frontiers in Microbiology 10, 744 (2019). Accessed 19 July 2022.
  18. Birhane, E., Sterck, F. J., Fetene, M., Bongers, F. & Kuyper, T. W. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi enhance photosynthesis, water use efficiency, & growth of frankincense seedlings under pulsed water availability conditions. Oecologia 169, 895–904 (2012).
  19. Sahasrabudhe, N. A. & Sankpal, N. v. Production of organic acids and metabolites of fungi for food industry. Applied Mycology and Biotechnology 1, 387–425 (2001). Accessed 19 July 2022.
  20. Accessed 21 July 2022.
  21. Behera, B. C. Citric acid from Aspergillus niger: a comprehensive overview. 46, 727–749 (2020). Accessed 21 July 2022.
  22. Raveendran, S. et al. Applications of Microbial Enzymes in Food Industry. Food Technology and Biotechnology 56, 16 (2018). Accessed 21 July 2022.
  23. Hyde, K. D. et al. The amazing potential of fungi: 50 ways we can exploit fungi industrially. Fungal Diversity 2019 97:197, 1–136 (2019). Accessed 19 July 2022.
  24. What is Quorn mycoprotein? Accessed 21 July 2022.
  25. Bull, Caroline, Damien Belobrajdic, Sara Hamzelou, Darren Jones, Wayne Leifert, Rocío Ponce-Reyes, Netsanet Shiferaw Terefe, Gemma Williams, and Michelle Colgrave. 2022. “How Healthy Are Non-Traditional Dietary Proteins? The Effect of Diverse Protein
  26. Humpenöder, F. et al. Projected environmental benefits of replacing beef with microbial protein. Nature 2022 605:7908605, 90–96 (2022). Accessed 19 July 2022.
  27. Lee SS. Meju fermentation for a raw material of Korean traditional soy products. Korean J Mycol. 1995;23:161–175. Accessed 22 November 2022.
  28. Donghwa S. Doyoun J. Korean traditional fermented soybean products: Jang. Accessed 22 November 2022.
See MoreSee Less

Keep updated with the latest news about your food with our newsletter

Follow Us