The Mad Chemistry Between Fungi and Your Food - BY VIVIAN KANCHIAN
How often do you think of fungi when you’re sipping on your morning coffee, taking respite under the shade of a big beautiful tree on a hot day (3), or baking fragrant bread at home? It turns out that we have fungi to thank for the existence of all of these things, and so much more. Not only do fungi help plants of all sizes (from little coffee plants to giant sequoias) grow stronger and healthier, but they also make for more delicious bread (4).
Before modern industrial agriculture introduced the usage of heavy tilling and chemical applications, fungi were the natural-born farmers of our food; making sure our soils were always teeming with a diverse blend of microorganisms for plant-roots to munch on. And because we are what we eat, when our soil is snacking on a rich soup of nutrients - so too are we. We don’t just live on Earth, we are of the Earth - literally. But did you know that today we need to eat twice the amount of broccoli our parents or grandparents did 50 years ago to get the same nutrition (1)?
As our demands for food transparency continue to grow, farms like Hugelrado are finding success in the time-tested use of regenerative practices - working with, rather than against nature. Using mushrooms to fortify their soil is a big part of the equation. Well, fungi, to be exact.
Mushrooms are actually the sexual organ of fungi. They live above ground, and reproduce by sprinkling their spores from underneath their caps onto the Earth, in much the same way an apple tree depends on its dispersal of seeds to multiply. The mycelium of fungi are similar to the roots of a tree and are made up of microscopic bundles of filaments called hyphae (5).
Think of fungi as our soil faeries. Working quietly alongside farmers, they emanate a kind of alchemical magic that brings our soils to life. By decomposing this and sharing a little of that, our faeries create a rich environment in which microorganisms like aerobic bacteria, protozoa, amoebae, nematodes and microarthropods, can thrive. And just like that, they bless us with living, breathing soil (6)! *This* is where our probiotics used to come from (7), and the reason why moms a couple of generations ago encouraged their children to play with, and, yes, even EAT a little of the soil attached to their veggies!
“Our gut microbiome is a direct extension of the nature we touch.” - Zach Bush, MD
The Mad Chemistry Between Fungi and Our Food
If all fungi are faeries, then Mycorrhizal Fungi (MF) must be the Master Mixers of Elixirs. Using sophisticated strategies that involve digestive enzymes and pressure, they break rocks down into absorbable nutrients for plant roots to slurp up (6). In fact, more than 70-90% of the plants we see today rely on MF to survive (8).
Making their homes entirely underground, MF wrap their long, threadlike hyphae around the roots of plants to form channels of communication, transport, and storage. In return for making nutrients available in the soil, over time plants evolved to release liquid sugars (aka: exudates) from their roots to feed the faeries and other microorganisms. It’s a symbiotic love affair, hundreds of millions of years old, that continues to this day.
MF also play an essential role in creating stable food systems. In fact, mycologists believe that fungi are responsible for the creation of all of our planetary soils (2)
Ready to Surf the Wood Wide Web?
You might be surprised to know that these Mad Scientists have been credited with creating the original internet - nature’s Wood Wide Web, that is. By forming sophisticated underground networks, MF help plants communicate with each other.
You know those times when you’re feeling hangry and send your sweetie a quick text begging them to have some food ready for you by the time you get home? Similarly, trees that are lacking nutrients or water may send an SOS message via mushroom mycelium, activating the older, more “connected” trees to respond with life-saving raw materials delivered through these same underground expressways (9). Move over, Elon Musk!
A Sticky Situation
MF Chemists not only transform nutrients and moisture into intoxicating elixirs, but they also help keep our soil’s “pantry” fully stocked by making a sticky substance called glomalin that enhances a plant’s ability to absorb and retain nutrients and water. Glomalin helps clump soil together, which is especially important during these times of global drought and extreme weather events. It also keeps carbon in the soil where it belongs, and out of our atmosphere - helping cool the planet (10).
When soil is “sticky”, it helps us conserve precious water and topsoil by keeping things firmly in place when wind, heat, and rainfall threaten to wear them away. In Didi Pershouse’s video on the Soil Sponge, she uses a brilliant analogy to demonstrate how healthy soil behaves compared to degraded dirt. Imagine pouring water over a mound of flour (standing in for dirt). The water will pick up some of the dusty flour as it makes its way down to the edges of the plate (just like runoff). When we try the same thing with a piece of bread, the structure provided by yeast (a fungus), helps the water to soak in and be held by the bread. Regenerative farming uses MF and other methods to encourage soil to retain nutrients and water.
Feeding the Faeries that Feed Us
The bottom line is Mycorrhizal Fungi are a major player in the soil-food web. Over time, regenerative farms that incorporate MF - especially when used alongside other holistic practices - are rewarded with robust, healthy plants that, ounce-for-ounce, provide higher nutritional value (12) (13), and produce higher crop yields with less input (11). Not only is this better for the planet, but it’s better for our bodies too. So, are you in love yet?
Vivian Kanchian has degrees in Community Health (MPH) from UCLA, and Nutrition (with additional certification in herbs and supplements).
Her connection to nature and knowledge of food as medicine began from an early age at home, and continues through her professional experiences as:
-Apprentice to Michelle Gerber, ND - where she deepened her knowledge of herbal medicines and supplements for women’s health
-Regional Correspondent for health startup EndPain - where she helped grow an online health platform
-Strategic Partnerships Lead at Project Angel Food - where she launched and grew a Food Is Medicine pilot program for Los Angeles residents with heart failure
These experiences, combined with her growing interest in health sovereignty, led her to establish Nutrition with a Mission in 2020 to help connect consumers and businesses to the greenest foods that match their unique needs.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over time, it’s that while our nutritional needs may be different, we are connected to EVERYthing and EVERYbody. And one of the most powerful ways we can heal ourselves and the planet that sustains us, is by choosing mindfully the foods we put on our plates”.
Connect with Vivian at: viviankanchian.com