March 11, 2010

Mushrooms Expert Stresses Crucial Fungus in Tibet

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Mushrooms comprise up to 8.5 percent of the Tibet Autonomous Region’s gross domestic product –– more than mining and industry combined.  Mushroom expert Daniel Winkler led a virtual tour of Tibet’s booming mushroom market Wednesday evening in the Plant Sciences Building.

Winkler, an environmental consultant, spoke about the vital economic importance of mushrooms to rural Tibet. Despite increases in mushroom harvests, especially of the insect-fungal hybrid caterpillar fungus, Winkler showed evidence that mushroom collecting can be sustainable in Tibet. The Cornell Mushroom Club, Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe biology department, NWAEG, and associate professor Kathie Hodge sponsored the lecture.

Tibet bears a long, rich history of mushroom collecting. Harvested mushrooms range from locally relevant varieties, like boletes and morels, to extremely lucrative fungi that are exported to Japan, China and Europe. In much of rural Tibet, mushrooming provides a substantial source of income.

The two most important mushrooms to the Tibetan economy, according to Winkler, are the matsutake and the caterpillar fungus. Local collectors sell their harvests to local or provincial dealers, who then sell the fungi to wholesale companies.

Matsutake alone bring in the equivalent of 3 to 5 million dollars to rural regions of Tibet. “That’s one of my fascinations with mushroom money,” Winkler explained. “It really goes to the most remote places. It goes to people who otherwise really have no chance to compete in an economy where they lack education and an access to market.”

The matsutake is associated with the roots of evergreen oaks. Winkler paraphrased David Aurora, author of “Mushrooms Demystified,” to describe the smell as a cross “between a funky sock and a cinnamon candy.”

Since the 1990s, Tibet has exported most of its matsutake to Japan. “The Japanese have a preference for baby matsutake, which is an issue for sustainability, since they want them before they have started to release spores,” Winkler explained.

The fruiting bodies, commonly called “mushrooms,” of grasslands or forest floors are extensions of underground fungi. Mushrooms produce spores, which can be spread by air, water or Tibetan mushroom collectors, that grow into new fungi. As a result, spreading spores is essential for future seasons of mushrooms. To ensure sustainable fungus collection, mushrooms must be able to develop spores before they are picked.

The caterpillar fungus is another money-making mushroom in Tibet. Literally a body-snatcher, this fungus, Ophiocordyceps sinensis, grows out of the head of a ghost moth larva that has burrowed under ground. The fungus is a parasite. Fungal spores infect adult moths, which eventually lay infected larvae. The larvae grow for three to four years until the fruiting bodies can protrude, and release new spores.

“When the larva is not infected, it will dig itself down … to over-winter, to protect itself. Tibetan winters are extremely dry …. When it’s infected, the larva will stay about half an inch below the surface. So the fungus is controlling the last movements of the insect.”

The caterpillar fungus is prized for its medicinal qualities by Tibetan and Chinese traditional medicine. Mention of the mushroom first appeared in a Tibetan text from the mid 15th century. Today, the caterpillar fungus fetches a high price of about $2 to $7 per mushroom in China, where it is prized as an aphrodisiac, an immunomodulating agent and a status symbol, claims Winkler.

Mushroom collectors spend up to eight hours each day hunting for the barely protruding stroma of the mushroom, which resemble local shrubs found in the grasslands of the Tibetan plateau. From Winkler’s calculations, caterpillar fungus collection makes up to 67 percent of cash income in some northern Tibetan provinces.

Because the money is so good, Winkler explained, the collection of caterpillar fungus is increasing at an alarming rate. According to his data, caterpillar fungus collection has been increasing 20 percent each year, as more collectors join the hunt.

To relieve the pressure of over-harvesting the caterpillar fungus, Winkler points to the Chinese for research on picking practices. According to Winkler, no Chinese groups have conducted studies on picking practices. His own proposal with Tibetan colleagues for sustainability research was denied by the Chinese. “It’s too touchy when a foreigner does caterpillar fungus.”

“They’re doing DNA, medicinal research, artificial cultivation ,… in many universities, but nobody on site [studying] what happens when you pick in different places, or if you don’t pick here. None of this is happening — for such a precious resource. Sustainability is not just a fantasy,” Winkler said. “Mushroom picking seems to be actually sustainable.”

Original Author: Daina Ringus