IT sounds like magic but mushrooms are being trained to grow on waste in a bid to increase food security in Scotland as well as decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

The project began during lockdown to show it is possible for people to grow their own food, even if they do not have a garden. It has resulted in a mushroom “farm” housed in a 40ft shipping container in Edinburgh which can produce 30kg of fungi a month.

Non-profit collective Rhyze Mushrooms is now crowdfunding in order to set up a laboratory where the fungi can be trained to grow and thrive on a wide variety of waste streams. Local wild mushrooms will also be cloned and cultivated.

The National: Scots farm helps mushrooms to save the planet

At the moment their oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms are growing on coffee grounds from nearby cafes as well as sawdust from local carpenters, but mushrooms have previously been used to clean up oil spills and can break down plastics and old clothes that would otherwise end up in landfill.

Mushroom production is also seen as a way of transitioning to a more sustainable, resilient food system and central to the collective’s work is supporting more people to grow mushrooms. They will be able to sign up as members and use the community laboratory, with support from Rhyze cultivators and mycologists.

“Lots of people don’t have access to green space, especially in the cities, but we have been growing them in our flats indoors,” said collective member Lauren Waterman. “You can do that quite easily and cheaply so we are trying to make growing your own food accessible to more people. Cultivation workshops in community centres are a big part of what we want to do so that very low-impact food production is accessible to as many people as possible.”

She added: “Mushrooms are part of the fungal kingdom and play a role of cleaning up waste. That is what they do in nature and they will grow very easily on anything that needs to be decomposed. You can train them to grow on all sorts of things but coffee grounds are good because they are nutrient dense and sterilised by boiling water when coffee is made. That way the mushrooms don’t have to compete with any mould.”

The National: Scots farm helps mushrooms to save the planet

In nature, fungi reproduce by producing spores which germinate to become single-cell structures that gather together to form more complex structures called mycelium. Mycelium grow rapidly and have enzymes that help break down matter into a more digestible form, which they take in as energy.

“You can train them by exposing them to a certain thing over and over until it becomes more adept at digesting it, so they can naturally evolve the ability to digest things they might not have been able to initially,” said Waterman. “People have used them to clean up toxic waste spills, for instance.”

They can also form mutually beneficial relationships with plants, transferring nutrients from the soil into the plant roots and receiving carbon in return.

Collective director Mim Black said that if people behaved a bit more like fungi it could help save the planet.

“The fungal networks which thread together and nourish all life inspire us to live and work co-operatively, without exploiting one another for profit,” she said. “We are building a radical mycology centre in Edinburgh which is founded on these principles: community, collaboration and mutual aid.”

The National: Scots farm helps mushrooms to save the planet

The collective believes that the current food system is broken as it is “built to enrich multinationals, relies on destructive global supply chains and industrial methods that are harmful to the land, exploit people’s labour and are a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions”.

It states that global food supply chains are also vulnerable to catastrophic weather events and other systemic shocks that are expected to increase in frequency and severity as the climate crisis worsens.

Food security requires communities to have the knowledge and resources that are necessary to grow their own food but access to growing spaces is inaccessible in most urban environments, the collective points out.

Rhyze cultivation co-ordinator Marco Tenconi said: “Rhyze Mushrooms aims to make mushroom cultivation, and food production in general, accessible and engaging for our local community. Advanced mushroom cultivation techniques require laboratory conditions which are incredibly hard to access for most people. We hope our community lab can support aspiring mycologists across Edinburgh and the Lothians.”

A sum of £8000 is needed for the laboratory, with nearly £3000 pledged so far.

“Having our own lab will also enable us to experiment further by working with a much wider variety of species, training mycelium to thrive on specific waste streams and the collecting and storing the genetic material of local species in order to grow mushrooms that are indigenous to our area,” said a spokesperson.

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