The Future is Fungal

So many start-ups making food, packaging, clothing, and building materials, so little time to cover them all... 🍄😍

The Future is Fungal
Photo by Presetbase Lightroom Presets on Unsplash

Every time I write that it makes me laugh.

“Fungal” is a ridiculous-sounding word that can mean so many things. We might be talking about tasty truffles, or shiitake, or lion’s mane – or mind-expanding trips on psilocybin. Or we could be referring to mold growing in the damp corners of your home or the athlete’s foot itching between your toes.

But fungi – which, genetically speaking, are more closely related to animals than they are to plants – are so much more than food, medicine, or gross stuff that grows in dark, damp places. They play a critical role decomposing organic matter to create soil and release nutrients into the environment – and they may have been the first organism to venture onto land, making it possible for plants and animals to colonize terrestrial Earth.

Fungi can be vast underground mycelium networks that facilitate the exchange of resources between diverse species of trees and plants in an ecosystem. The largest individual organism in the world is a fungus – an Armillaria solidipes (aka “honey fungus”) growing in the Pacific Northwest that covers roughly 2,384 acres and is estimated to be over 2000 years old.

And they’re a fast-growing source of nutrients and biomaterial that scientists and companies around the world are increasingly exploring as a possible solution to help meet the world’s needs as we transition to a carbon-free economy.

Here are just a few of the ways fungi could potentially play a key role in our awesome future:

    A growing number of companies are using mushrooms and mycelium to create meat alternatives that require far less energy and resources to grow than traditional animal-derived meat. Meati is one such company that’s getting a lot of buzz these days. Its parent company, Emergy Foods claims that its fungi-based meat uses as little as 1% of the energy, land, and water used in traditional agricultural practices and takes days rather than years to make complete protein.

    Meanwhile, Israeli company Mush Foods just released a new product called 50CUT that’s 50% regular beef, 50% mycelium protein. Even a 50-50 product like this, if widely adopted, could have a huge impact on the environment, as a study published in 2022 found that replacing just 20 percent of beef with fungi protein could cut global deforestation by a whopping 50 percent.

    And have I mentioned the mushroom bacon I’m dying to try if/when it finally comes to Canada?
    Biomaterials companies around the world have been exploring ways to make textiles from mycelium and other fungi.

    A number of textiles startups are making vegan leather alternatives out of mycelium. For example, Dutch company Neffa creates “high-quality textile products and garments for diverse applications in a sustainable way” and was recently named “Start-Up of the Month” by The International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre. One of their products is personalized clothing using customizable molds.

    Famed fashion designer Stella McCartney (daughter of Paul) recently started selling her Frayme handbags made out of mycelium-derived vegan leather produced by biomaterials company, Bolt Threads.

    And Matt Scullin, CEO of MycoWorks, another buzzy mycelium textiles company, had this to say: “The great eras in human history are described by their material like the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. We are in the early days of the Biomaterials Age.”
    Startup companies are looking at mycelium-based products to use as insulation and building materials for use in construction.

    For example, one such company, Myceen, makes acoustic wall panels to improve the acoustic quality of interior spaces. An architect in Cleveland is developing a method to use recycled debris from demolished homes and buildings to create mycelium-based construction materials. (Love the circular economy aspect of his initiative.) A research team at the University of Manitoba is working to develop construction bricks made from mycelium and flax that can be used to build homes in isolated Manitoba communities. And Netherlands-based GROWN Bio creates thermal insulation panels for use in construction.

    According to one sustainability expert, mycelium is naturally fire retardant and has better insulation properties than most standard insulation and sequesters carbon to boot.  
    On top of feeding, clothing, and sheltering us, myceliumi-based products are also being used to create packaging and plastic-replacement products to meet many of our daily needs.

    Ecovative is an innovative New York-based company creating several different kinds of mycelium-based products, including packaging materials to use in place of styrofoam as well as foam and vegan “hides” for use in furniture, fashion, and other applications. MadeRight is an Israeli company that makes single-use plastics out of mycelium and recently won the Unilever Sustainable Challenge Award. The Magical Mushroom Company is based in the UK and makes “planet-positive packaging.”

    Major technology businesses such as Dell have started to use mycelium-based materials in their packaging. And a few out-of-the-box scientists are exploring the possibility of using mycelium in computer parts!

    Mushrooms have played a significant role in traditional medicines around the world for centuries. Reishi, turkey tail, and shiitake have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties and are thought to support the healthy functioning of the immune system. Lion’s mane is thought to be good for memory and brain health. And chaga is known for its remarkably high level of antioxidants and is thought to promote healthy digestion.  

    Then there’s psiloyibin, which is being explored as a potential treatment for depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders. Many believe that microdosing with psilocybin can enhance one’s mood, creativity, concentration, productivity, and ability to empathize with others.

This is just a snapshot of the myriad reasons why mushrooms and mycelium-based technologies could play a key role in creating our awesome future.

So even if mushrooms aren’t your favourite food or the idea of eating mycelium-based steak or bacon makes you think, “ick,” it’s a good idea to consider the delicious role fungi might play in helping wean us off of plastic and other CO2-emitting materials – and accelerate our transition to a more sustainable way of living.

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