Overstory #164 - Wild edible fungi and livelihoods
This chapter looks at the ways in which wild edible fungi are important to people, particularly those in developing countries, and attempts to relate this information to the way in which people live. Development support is adopting new approaches towards helping poor people in developing countries. Pragmatic and practical approaches to reducing poverty seek improvements sooner rather than later. Wild edible fungi already play an important role in the lives of many people and more benefits could be achieved. A knowledge of the fungi themselves is important but will not itself lead to changes unless the choices and options defined by livelihoods are closely examined.
Wild edible fungi provide two main benefits to people they are a source of food and income. Around six percent of edible species also have medicinal properties. This contribution to human welfare is difficult to assess and has received little attention. The medicinal properties of mycorrhizal fungi have not been well investigated (Reshetnikov, Wasser and Tan, 2001).
The awareness of wild edible fungi and their importance to people are generally poor. Subsistence uses in developing countries have often been ignored and it is only in recent years that initiatives on NWFP have begun to explain their widespread use and roles in livelihoods. There has been much interest in the last years surrounding commercial harvesting of matsutake in the Pacific northwest of North America, supported by a substantial literature. However, matsutake and the continued interest in truffles and truffle cultivation (Hall, Zambonelli and Primavera, 1998) reflect a very different pattern of use, where wild edible fungi are seen as a luxury food.
Beyond the glare of publicity of commercial harvests, information from development projects and national initiatives - for example China, Mexico and Turkey - has slowly been emerging. Commercial harvesting also benefits rural people in several countries but the sum of the money earned is less than the total benefits gained from widespread subsistence uses. Substantial benefits are derived by people in developing countries, and in particular the most vulnerable communities living in rural locations - the "poor of the poor".
Global statistics are not available and the evidence to support statements about widespread benefits is based first on case studies, discussed in more detail below, and second on more anecdotal accounts. Information has been poorly documented in the past because of fewer opportunities for scientists to study wild edible fungi in developing countries. There have also been cultural biases against wild edible fungi and an often unjustified assumption that they are of minor importance (Piearce, 1985; Wasson and Wasson, 1957). The latter publication has done much to stimulate wider interest and more research.
Donor-funded projects on wild edible fungi in the United Republic of Tanzania (Härkönen et al., 1993), Malawi (Boa et al., 2000) and Benin (De Kesel, 2002, personal communication Wild edible fungi from Benin) have taken a broader view of social and economic issues related to wild edible fungi. National programmes in Mexico have established a sound knowledge of the many species of wild edible fungi used throughout the country (Villarreal and Perez-Moreno, 1989). Research attention is now being turned on social and economic factors, encouraged by a wider awareness of the importance of NWFP to rural economies and people.
The importance of wild edible fungi to people in developing countries may also have gone unremarked for the simple reason that many of the collections are for personal use (Yorou and De Kesel, 2002). The limited mycological expertise in West Africa is said to be responsible for the mistaken belief that it is a "mushroom desert" (Ducousso, Ba and Thoen, 2002). Reports from Ghana (Obodai and Apetorgbor, 2001) and Sierra Leone (Down, 2002, personal communication Wild edible fungi from Sierra Leone) indicate that local use is widespread. The regular use of wild edible fungi in tropical rain forests was revealed when careful observations of local practices were undertaken in Brazil (Prance, 1984), now supported by evidence from Kalimantan (Leluyani, 2002, personal communication Edible fungi of Kalimantan) and Sarawak (Chin, 1988; Jones, 2002, personal communication Wild edible fungi use in Sarawak).
Information is published in a number of different places or disciplines and is sometimes presented in broader studies of communities (e.g. Shackleton et al., 2002 South Africa; Ertrug, 2000 Turkey; Gunatilleke, Gunatilleke and Abeygunawardena, 1993 Sri Lanka). These and many other reports listed in the reference section emphasize that the contributions of wild edible fungi to diet and income of rural people should not be underestimated.
The following sections take a closer look at the types of benefits obtained from wild edible fungi. Their relative contributions to livelihoods vary greatly. A meal of wild mushrooms is a delicacy in Switzerland or the United States but a necessity in Malawi. The money earned from selling Lactarius deliciosus provides a small financial fillip in northern Spain (de Román, 2002, personal communication Trade in níscalos from North Spain to Catalonia and truffle production) while collecting morels in India allows people to pay for sending their children to school (Singh and Rawat, 2000).
The importance of wild edible fungi from a development perspective is defined by comparison with other sources of food and income. Alternatives do exist and proposals to increase the use and benefits of wild edible fungi will always be compared with available options. The lure of jobs in the tourist trade in Hunan, China, is an attractive alternative to climbing up and down mountains, with no guarantee of finding wild edible fungi to sell (Härkönen, 2002). The contraction of job opportunities in the forestry business does not mean that collecting wild edible fungi is either an attractive or economic proposition, even to people desperate for work (Tedder, Mitchell and Farran, 2002).
Nutrition and health benefits
Useful macrofungi consist of those with edible and medicinal properties. There is no easy distinction between the two categories. Many of the common edible species have therapeutic properties; several medicinal mushrooms are also eaten. Ganoderma species (ling zhi or reishi) are the most valuable medicinal mushrooms the global value of ganoderma-based dietary supplements has been estimated to be US$1.6 billion (Chang and Buswell, 1999).
There has been a spectacular increase of interest and commercial activity concerned with dietary supplements, functional foods and other products that are "more than just food" (Etkin and Johns, 1998; Wasser et al., 2000). Although these new products have clear economic potential, their relevance to developing countries is at present still marginal. Medicinal wild fungi are collected in China. There is a substantial trade of Cordyceps sinensis in Sichuan (Priest, 2002, personal communication Edible and medicinal fungi in China and general information; Winkler, 2002) and in other countries such as Nepal. Rural people earn substantial amounts from commercial harvesting.
The main benefits of wild useful fungi are, however, as food. They are collected, consumed and sold in over 85 countries and their contribution to diets is discussed below.
The constituents of an edible fungus are not necessarily a good guide to nutritional value (Breene, 1990). The digestibility of different components varies, while analytical methods are not always reliably used in testing (Crisan and Sands, 1978; Lau, 1982). The use of different techniques for analysing nutritional value also limits a comparison of results from different studies (Degreef et al., 1997). Estimates of (usable) protein content should exclude chitin present in fungal cell walls, for example. This is not always observed in studies.
A summary of nutritional analyses shows good protein and mineral content of key wild edible species in their dry state. Moisture content varies between about 85 and 95 percent for the fleshy mushrooms and similar types.) Edible species are low in fat, contain essential amino acids and useful minerals and, though they are not energy-providing foods, they are a substantially better source of nutrition than is often assumed or inferred (Richards, 1939).
Contribution to diet
Data confirm that wild edible fungi are nutritious and a suitable alternative for well-known foodstuffs. They compare favourably using standard measures that assess the nutritional value of foods. The contribution to diet will depend on the amounts eaten by people, the species involved and the frequency of consumption.
People regularly eat wild edible fungi in many countries and they make a valuable and often essential contribution to diets, as shown by a study in Malawi (Abbott, 1999). This detailed study of eating habits in villages revealed that 1.3 kg of dried leafy vegetables and/or wild edible fungi was enough (when rehydrated) to feed a family of four for two weeks (Abbott, 1999).
The shelf life of wild edible fungi can be short but harvests are also preserved in a number of ways. In the Russian Federation and China wild edible fungi are commonly preserved in brine. Russians also freeze wild edible fungi for later use (Vladyshevskiy, Laletin and Vladyshevskiy, 2000). In southern Africa, edible fungi are eaten fresh and less commonly dried. Throughout the miombo region of southern Africa wild edible fungi are an important source of nutrition at a time of year when other food supplies are low - the so-called "famine months". Here the normal diet consists of nsima (a maize or cassava-based porridge) to which relishes are added. The relishes provide key nutrients and add piquancy to the bland nsima.
Information on the amounts of wild edible fungi consumed includes:
- Mozambique in the north, close to the border with Malawi, people collect from 6 to 10 kilograms of wild edible fungi during a season (December to March). It was estimated that each household ate 72 to 160 kg per year. Average consumption of Termitomyces schimperi was reckoned to be 30-35 kg per household per year. Similar eating habits might be reasonably expected to occur in Malawi and other miombo regions. (Masuka in Boa et al., 2000).
- Zimbabwe households eat up to 20 kg in a productive year but only 5-10 kg in deforested areas (Masuka, 2002, personal communication Collection of mushrooms in Zinbabwe).
- Russian Federation - Siberia people collect 15-100 kg in a year and eat 80-90 percent directly. The population of Krasnoyarsk region is three million over an area of 2.3 million km2; it is estimated that 40 percent of families collect wild edible fungi, for personal use, recreation or sale (based on interviews with 500 respondents). Use of wild edible fungi has increased by 200-300 percent in recent years and now provides 30-40 percent of household income. (Vladyshevskiy, Laletin and Vladyshevskiy, 2000).
As a general rule, the poorer the people the more likely they are to collect and use wild edible fungi. Some traditions are lost as people become better educated and live away from the land and they show an increasing reluctance to eat all but the most common species (Lowy, 1974). In the Republic of Korea, China, the Russian Federation and Japan the tradition of eating wild edible fungi is much stronger and appears to have withstood the changes experienced elsewhere.
Rural people eat wild edible fungi both as a matter of choice and as a food of last resort. Little reliable information is available, however, on the use of wild fungi as famine foods. In the Russian Federation, food distribution systems have collapsed and state subsidies for food have disappeared, forcing people "back to the land". A renewed dependency on natural products has developed and traditions of collecting and eating wild edible fungi have been reinforced. The extent of these changes is not well understood but emphasizes again that closeness to the land is associated with eating wild edible fungi.
Contribution to health
Medicinal fungi are routinely used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and awareness of their uses is increasing (Ying et al., 1987; Hobbs, 1995). Wild medicinal fungi are also collected and used in Mexico and several other countries, but widespread and regular use is most closely associated with China and Asian people. Medicinal fungi are often sold in Chinese markets though the contribution from wild harvests is still unclear (Chamberlain, 1996).
Worldwide, the majority of sales are from cultivated sources though many species are also collected from the wild. The incentive for collecting wild Cordyceps sinensis in Tibet Autonomous Region, Sichuan (Winkler, 2002) and other parts of China (see distribution map in Mao, 2000) is to earn money. Beyond China there is no discernable international trade in medicinal fungi.
Local marketing and income
There are two distinct patterns of wild edible fungi use for subsistence or personal use and commercial harvesting. Information about personal collections is scarce, but the extent of this practice is global and there are increasing reports that help to demonstrate the importance of WEF to rural people in developing countries. Many more species are eaten locally compared to the small number involved in commercial harvesting.
Finland has the most detailed information on personal collections of wild edible fungi. Wild edible fungi are a less important part of the diet in Finland today, in times of relative affluence, but there is still government support for collecting them. There is a stronger tradition of collecting and consuming wild edible fungi in the east of Finland, a region where Karelian people originally from the Russian Federation have settled. Around 25 percent of Karelian families collect to sell in markets, though the amounts vary from year to year because of fluctuating harvests. 1976 was a poor year and about 45 percent of families interviewed did not collect any wild edible fungi during this period. Poorer communities collected more often to sell in local markets (Härkönen, 1998).
The total amounts sold in local markets can be considerable. Anecdotal evidence from China points to huge quantities collected and taken to markets in small towns and from there to larger cities. Preserving wild edible fungi in brine is an important feature of this trade and it allows much larger quantities to be offered for sale. The financial contributions to rural livelihoods are not known though the widespread sale of wild edible fungi within China and the substantial export business (over 60 percent of Boletus edulis imported by Italy comes from China - Borghi [2002, personal communication Porcini and other commercial wild edible fungi in Italy]) clearly demonstrates that substantial amounts of money are earned.
Experiences in Malawi showed that money earned by local collectors is small but substantial, and that there is an expanding local market for wild edible fungi (Boa et al., 2000). Women frequently go on collecting trips in many parts of southern Africa and a number of reports confirm the importance of this activity during the three- to four-month season each year (Richards, 1939; Thomson, 1954).
The distance from collecting sites to potential markets is a crucial factor in selling wild edible fungi. The roadside markets at Liwonde in Malawi are close to the forest areas where wild edible fungi are collected. The road is the main thoroughfare from Blantyre to Lilongwe and the makeshift stalls sell round 5 tonnes of wild edible fungi during a four-month season. There is no shortage of people wanting to collect and sell, and this has led to increased competition for fungal resources people now have to walk further to collect (Lowore and Boa, 2001).
The market structure in Malawi is typical of many African countries (e.g. Sierra Leone Down, 2002, personal communication Wild edible fungi Sierra Leone) small-scale and local. Sales at Liwonde and elsewhere depend on the flow of traffic and some days few buyers stop. Some traders wait until the end of the day and buy the unsold produce, moving it quickly to more central markets in the bigger cities. The prices they offer are low but the alternatives are either to dry the fungi or discard them. Local markets in Madhya Pradesh, India, are also small-scale (Harsh, Rai and Soni, 1999) and appear to operate in a similar manner, but within towns rather than by the roads.
In the Russian Federation the collapse of state organizations and state buying has significantly affected the amounts of money people can earn from wild edible fungi. Previous displeasure about the low prices offered by the state are, in hindsight, viewed less harshly following the collapse of local markets (Vladyshevskiy, Laletin and Vladyshevskiy, 2000).
The removal of state control in China has unleashed a greater entrepreneurship, though it has not been without its failures. Factories for processing matsutake in Sichuan are barely surviving (Winkler, 2002); similar facilities for producing ganbajum (Thelephora ganbajum) never operated effectively and were eventually shut down (Rijsoort and Pikun, 2000). The local trade in ganbajum has continued, though collectors spend longer in cleaning their harvest for market (up to two hours per kilogram). Consumers pay a higher price for better quality produce.
World trade in cultivated mushrooms
There has been a spectacular increase in world production over the last ten years. In 1997 shi'itake (Lentinula edodes) and Pleurotus spp. together exceeded the value of sales of Agaricus bisporus, a mushroom celebrated more for its shape than its taste. An estimate of world production for 2001, based on figures for 1997, puts the global value of cultivated mushrooms at around US$23 billion. This exceeds the value of many other commodities.
The trade in wild edible fungi and the business of cultivated mushrooms have both steadily expanded. Packets of wild and cultivated species are sold in shops. Sales of wild edible fungi have risen steadily as the range of commercial species on sale in the United Kingdom has increased. In China, customers have been observed to prefer the wild species, when in season, to the cultivated mushrooms that are available all year round (Priest, 2002, personal communication Edible and medicinal fungi in China and general information).
Cultivated mushrooms are now China's biggest "vegetable" export and there are significant numbers of relatively small-scale producers in countries such as Viet Nam and Indonesia (Gunawan, 2000). Both China and Viet Nam export cultivated mushrooms to Europe.
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This article was excerpted with the kind permission of the author and publisher from:
Boa, E. 2004. Wild edible fungi a global overview of their use and importance to people. FAO Technical Paper Non-Wood Forest Products 17. FAO, Rome.
About the author
Eric Boa has a background in bamboo management, tree health, diagnostics and advisory services, non-timber forest products. He has worked for over 20 years in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America and has extensive experience of bamboo in all three continents, including rural development projects, research projects and commercial consultancies. His other interests include the development of appropriate diagnostic and advisory services in plant health for rural communities, tree health in agroforestry (projects in Bolivia and Vietnam) and the sustainable management of wild edible fungi in southern Africa.
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