Imagine a dinner party with friends or family that started with a glass of wine or fruit juice, and ended with a glass of beer or kombucha. Imagine yourself gazing at a beautiful basket of bread and imagining the moment when you will slather butter or oil on it. Next comes the fresh vegetables, sauteed in soy sauce or tofu, free-range beef, potatoes, or rice. Finally, there's cheese or a dessert. And finally, a cup of tea or coffee with some chocolates, or even sake. Let's take a moment to thank the fungi for this. They are the true reason for all of this, and you wouldn't be able to enjoy your meal without them.
Fungi are responsible almost for all of our food production and most of our processed products. Fungi are also responsible for many important medical breakthroughs that have helped people with mental and physical ailments. They can be credited for slowing releasing and naturally sequestering carbon and optimizing industrial processes.
Most people associate fungi with decay. Many people mistakenly think that fungi are plants. However, fungi can be neither animals nor plants. They are instead organisms that create their own kingdom of living.
They eat differently to other organisms. Fungi don't photosynthesize as plants, and they don't ingest food like animals. Fungi live in their food and secrete enzymes that dissolve the nutrients they absorb.
This kingdom includes yeasts, moulds and mushrooms, wood-ears and conks, as well as many other unicellular or multicellular organisms that can live in both marine and freshwater environments. A chanterelle and a morel are, in essence, as close as an elephant and a flea can be.
It is interesting to note that fungi are closer to us than to plants. They share a common ancestor in opisthokont, which, like human spermatozoids, is a cell with an anterior flagellum.
'We know only 10% of species diversity within kingdom fungi, at most.' Photograph: Robin Loznak/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock
Let's get to the core question: What would happen if there were no fungi? Most plants cannot survive without fungi and can only live in water. You wouldn't have forests to walk in, or agriculture to provide food for you. Without the fungi in their stomachs, herbivores like cows can't digest grass. Only yeasts can ferment food, and that, going back to the dinner table, would mean that there is no bread, chocolate, soy sauce, beer, or wine.
Without moulds like koji, many ancient civilizations couldn't have preserved food other than by using salt and smoking. We have been using enzymes extracted from fungi for decades to clean clothes in coldwater (yes, that's right, that's what they do in your detergent), and we have also bioengineered natural pesticides that are entomopathogenic to eliminate the toxic burden of synthetic insecticides.
Researchers also found the cholesterol-lowering statins and life-saving antibiotics such as penicillin in fungi. We are finally allowing and legalizing medicinal compounds from fungi for urgent and life-threatening mental illnesses like PTSD and depression.
As if this weren't enough, almost all of our traditional and ancestral rituals for reaching the celestial from terrestrial include fungi. These range from Soma in Vedic cultures, to communion with bread or wine in Roman Catholic culture. Fungi matter - a lot.
However, most biodiversity, climate change, and environmental legal frameworks ignore the whole kingdom. The general public also ignores the entire kingdom: For too long, macroscopic diversity, species on earth, have been referred too using the obsolete term flora and fauna. This refers to just plants and animals rather than fauna, flora and funga or animals, plants, and fungi.
The term "diversity of fungi" is the correct term for referring to the diversity of fungi in a particular place. This terminology has been adopted by the IUCN species survival committee and the global NGO Re:Wild, among others. Mycological illiteracy seems to be over.
The very beginning of a natural process that allows life to exist is called decomposition or decay. Because energy is not lost but transformed, there is no way to regenerate without the degeneration of organic substances. It is the fungi who are responsible for this crucial transformation. If we take a fallen tree and picture it as a collection of blocks, we can see how decomposition works. The fungi weave through the blocks to loosen them and then "rebuild" the tree.
'Decomposition' is the start of a fundamental natural process that allows for life. Photograph by Yarygin/Shutterstock
This has been viewed as distasteful for too long, despite the fact that once in a while life is a linear process. It is amazing to realize that negative things can be attributed to rot, when we are able to understand its incredible nature-based solutions.
You can also use rot to create a more sustainable future. Mycelium, a grouping of fungi such as mushrooms, is beginning to revolutionize fashion. It is both a tangible, safe and sustainable alternative to animal leather and plastic packaging. Mycelium leathers, packaging and other fungi are being used as a source for clothing and durable, recyclable and sustainable materials.
Mylo Unleather, Made with Reishi and other amazing packaging materials from Ecovative are leading the industry in moving away from pollutant material whose manufacturing process uses unsustainable amounts water, toxins and energy and sometimes even requires the death of an animal.
Paul Stamets, the legendary mycologist, said this during Paris and London Fashion Weeks on the Stella McCartney runways. He is wearing a hat made from amadou, an ancient Eastern European fungal felt or suede that shows that fungi also have a successful past.
Mycologists agree that we only know 10% of the species diversity in kingdom fungi. It is crucial to increase our knowledge of species before they disappear forever, and their potential. This is more than just their use as food or materials: fungi are vital for the survival of rural communities around the globe. Many families in subsistence economies rely on the seasonal appearances of fungi for food and tradeable products.
This is not only a way to sustain livelihoods, but it also keeps cultures alive. For example, in southern Chile, families harvest Cyttaria espinosae "diguene", a spring fungus. Firewood is collected, songs and oral history are transmitted. You can hear laughter and joy throughout the hills of southern beech forests. Cyttaria is a wonderful addition to the dinner table.
It is important to not overlook or undervalue the fact that fungi can create ecosystems. How is this possible? Let's take an example: If we don't add aquafaba or egg to the mixture, the sugar will not stick together. For example, in a forest, animals and plants don't "stick" together unless the fungi are there to make the ecosystem.
Science is clear that fungi are crucial to maintaining stable climate systems (given their role as sequestering carbon from soil) and maintaining ecosystemic health. However, legislation has yet to catch up. Many environmental and conservation policies have neglected or undervalued fungi. This oversight can have serious consequences. When fungi are at risk, it puts the ecosystems that depend upon them in danger. We miss opportunities to solve grave environmental problems such as climate change and land degradation.
The Fungi Foundation calls for the inclusion of fungi in law and policy at all levels - national, regional, and international. In the wake of COP26, I hope that the UN will include fungi - which are critical to solving urgent environmental problems like climate change – on its agenda. The Fungi Foundation, which was founded by Merlin Sheldrake, a biologist and best-selling author, and Cesar Rodriguez-Garavito (NYU Law professor), prepared a manifesto, and a roadmap to legal recognition of fungi. This document has been signed by more than 1,000 other signatories, from over 70 countries, and has been supported by prominent environmental activists and experts, such as Jane Goodall and George Monbiot, Donna Haraway and Kristine Tompkins, and Peter Gabriel.
"When fungi are at risk, we miss opportunities for solving serious environmental problems such as climate change," Photograph: Norbert Rosing/National Geographic/Getty Images
International governance institutions, from the UN bodies to the Conference of the Parties, which meet to advance the Convention on Biological Diversity, can use their legal and political clout for the creation and updating of laws and policies to protect fungi. They can also be integrated into conservation, biodiversity and environmental law and policy. The Chilean example can be followed by national governments in adopting legislation to extend legal protections for fungi that are already available to animals and plants.
All mushrooms have magic. As someone who has studied mushrooms, I can tell you that all mushrooms are magical. It is time to acknowledge them everywhere, from the dinner table to international conservation policy - and include them in our vision of ecosystems that must be preserved and protected. Let's face it, the entire world is inhabited with fauna, flora, and funga.
The world we know today would not exist without fungi.