Mushrooms, and the larger fungi kingdom in general, have long proven themselves an enigma to mankind. Known for their ubiquity and diverse applications—ranging from human consumption to various medicinal and industrial uses—mushrooms have long been a part of the human diet. Yet only around 14,000 of an estimated 140,000 species of mushrooms have been formally described by taxonomists thus far, an even smaller proportion of which are edible.
Today, mushrooms and truffles remain among the world’s most in-demand crops, in part due to the particular conditions and often cumbersome processes required for their cultivation. Although relatively little land, capital, and labor is required to begin farming mushrooms, industrial production is notoriously difficult to maintain.
Meanwhile, global demand for mushrooms has consistently risen over the past two decades. Rising incomes and populations in countries like China and India have already allowed more people to incorporate mushrooms into their diets. In the US and other developed countries, new claims regarding the health benefits of mushrooms have further compounded the fungi’s appeal as a high-protein meat alternative. Even the luxury market has responded; farmers around the world have started to reconsider producing truffles, a historically elusive fungus which is often worth its weight in gold.
To meet this increased demand, farmers and processors have largely turned to technology, albeit with limited success. Improved cultivation techniques have allowed producers to increase output of common mushrooms such as the white-button, shiitake, and oyster varieties. Once considered too difficult to farm, several new species of truffles and other specialty mushrooms and fungi are now being commercially cultivated as well. Perhaps as significantly, improvements in packaging and logistics have lengthened the shelf life of all mushrooms and truffles, which are measured in days, allowing for shipping over longer distances. Despite these advances, however, the inherent difficulties in large scale mushroom production continue to leave supply well short of demand.
Due to their adaptable and pervasive nature, mushrooms grow quite easily in the wild, and they have been consumed by humans for millennia for both their nutritional and medicinal values. As a food, mushrooms have long been eaten as a source of carbohydrates and proteins. In addition, most mushrooms possess a wide range of vitamins and minerals. Especially in parts of Asia, mushrooms are served medicinally, and researchers have discovered that certain species, like the lingzhi mushroom, possess both antiviral and anticarcinogenic properties.
Currently, commercial production of most mushrooms takes place in specialized growing houses which allow large producers to have their crop be less exposed to weather and climate risks. On the other end of the spectrum, small-scale producers are able to start cultivating mushrooms without capital investments, as mushrooms can grow on logs, either natural or synthetic, without a great deal of maintenance. Many other species of fungi are able to be grown in compost or other types of decaying matter like corn cobs, sawdust, coffee pulp, and horse manure, among others. So long as the substrate is properly sterilized, spawns of mushrooms can be cultivated in them—a process which generally takes between 12 and 16 weeks before harvest.
Despite the existence of over 2,300 known species of wild edible fungi, just five species represent 85 percent of all commercially harvested mushrooms. The most popular, the common mushroom of the species Agaricus bisporus, consists of multiple cultivars such as button, Italian, portobello, cremini, white and brown cap mushrooms. The next four most popular mushrooms are oyster, shiitake, wood ears, and enoki mushrooms. While agaricus mushrooms are the most widely consumed mushrooms globally—and they are especially dominant in the United States—Asian consumers tend to consume a wider range of mushrooms, such as the wood ear, which are not widely eaten elsewhere.
Due in part to its surfeit of labor, China has long been the world’s largest producer of mushrooms. In 1990, China produced around a third of global mushroom and truffle production, which totaled over 2 million tonnes; by 2014, China’s mushroom and truffle production had grown to 7.6 million tonnes, which is over three-quarters of the 10 million tonnes produced globally. Moreover, although mushroom production does not take up a great deal of land, global area harvested of mushrooms has increased fivefold between 1990 and 2014, the majority of which has taken place in China.
China has focused especially on the cultivation of shiitake mushrooms, an increasingly popular variety in developed markets. Chinese farmers produce nearly 90 percent of the world’s total supply of shiitake mushrooms, increasing production from 500,000 tonnes in 1995 to over 4 million tonnes by 2012. Shiitake mushrooms are one of the most expensive varieties of common mushroom, and the rising cultivation in China has been credited with helping lift rural communities out of poverty.
Although China and the US are major producers of mushrooms, neither country are major exporters. That’s because most mushrooms are highly perishable, and the majority of mushrooms are still consumed fresh. Given the difficulties of transporting fresh mushrooms, shipments are thus exported in one of two ways: either they are canned, which extends their shelf life up to three years, or higher-valued specialty mushrooms and truffles are selected to be shipped abroad in expensive refrigerated containers.
As measured by value, Poland has actually grown to become the world’s largest mushroom exporter in part due to its geographic location and demand within the EU—the largest market for mushrooms, which accounts for more than 35 percent of the global market value in 2016. Poland’s mushroom exports valued $32 million in 2000; by 2013, that figure had ballooned to $427 million, accounting for nearly a quarter of the world’s exports by value. While Italy doesn’t export a large amount of mushrooms and truffles, its exports per pound are much more valuable than Poland’s. The 7.4 million pounds exported by Italy in 2013 fetched $60 million, a value of over $8 per pound, while the 452 million pounds exported by Poland was valued at $427 million, or slightly less than $1 a pound. (Italy’s figures are significantly skewed by the value of its white Alba truffles, which can fetch up to $3,000 a pound in Sotheby’s auctions.)
While growth in mushroom consumption in countries like China and India is mostly driven by booming populations and rising incomes, consumers in developed countries have also increased demand for mushrooms, but often for different reasons. Growing numbers of health-conscious consumers in developed countries have taken to mushrooms—especially the large portobello cultivar of the common mushroom—as a protein-rich alternative to meat. In addition to mushrooms being fat and cholesterol-free, they are also an important source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. In addition, a growing number of scientific studies conducted in the last 10 years have shown a correlation between mushroom consumption and a declining rate of breast and prostate cancer growth. Beyond any potential health benefits, specialty mushrooms are also being rediscovered by the culinary community simply for their storied tastes.
US consumers have too increased their consumption of mushrooms. Per capita consumption of mushrooms was only 2.7 pounds in 1978, but by 2014, that figure has reached nearly 4 pounds. In 2011, over $1 billion in US mushrooms were sold within the country, and that figure has grown every year since—by 2016, that value had risen to nearly $1.2 billion.
These mushrooms are almost uniformly agaricus mushrooms, which make up over 95 percent of US production by weight. Between 2010 and 2016, production of agaricus mushrooms has grown by 16 percent. Producers in Pennsylvania have been the primary beneficiaries, given that the state alone produces around 60 percent of the country’s mushrooms. In addition to having the highest production, Pennsylvania also maintains the highest yields, nearly 10 percent higher than the US average.
While the traditional common agaricus mushrooms have witnessed some growth, higher-end mushrooms have seen far faster increases; brown agaricus mushrooms have seen nearly a 50 percent increase in sales value between 2010 and 2016, and starting from a lower base, both oyster and shiitake mushrooms have doubled in sales value to about $35 million each. Meanwhile, specialty mushrooms have seen the greatest growth in sales: Its value has grown by over 240 percent, to $95 million over the last six years.
The trend of growing consumption of high-value mushrooms and fungi can be seen in US imports of fresh truffles. In 2000, the US imported $3.6 million worth of truffles from abroad. By 2015, that figure had reached $16.8 million.
The much higher sales value of these mushrooms isn’t simply the result of higher prices. Although producer prices of all mushroom types have risen, none have seen rates of growth as high as their sales values.
Mushrooms and truffles are high-value crops for largely two reasons: first, they are difficult to cultivate on a large scale; second, their brief shelf life make them difficult to get to consumers.
While mushrooms grow abundantly in the wild, and although they’re relatively capital-light, commercial producers face significant challenges in scaling to an industrial level. Commercial production needs to take place in indoor spaces, which maintain steady levels of darkness, cool temperatures, and a sterilized environment. Large spaces need to be fine-tuned to maintain temperature, humidity, and ventilation. Although many substances can make up the substrate in which the mushrooms grow, they must always be properly sterilized, and cannot be simply reused; the larger the crop, the more difficulty producers face warding off invasions of fungi and other pests.
If producers are able to successfully control for a large harvest, they still have to deal with the extremely perishable nature of many mushrooms and truffles, the most popular of which spoil in three to four days of harvesting. (To get around this problem, major producers stagger their production so that they’d be able to deliver a harvest on a weekly basis.) The logistical links between harvests, storage, packaging, delivery, and retail are tight and come at a premium. Even with sophisticated supply chains, consumers may not always be able to get fresh mushrooms and truffles quickly enough.
The growth in high-end mushroom consumption has largely been the result of transcending these inherent constraints through the use of innovative technology. Although much of the world’s increased mushroom production has come from an increase in area harvested, higher value mushrooms have seen significant improvements in production and distribution.
The world’s most sophisticated mushroom production facilities have figured out better mixtures of compost to maximize yields; the production plants use vacuum cooling units to chill mushrooms more effectively so that they can last longer; and the general improvements in cold chain technologies (including construction of refrigerated loading docks and storage areas) have allowed mushrooms to be delivered to retailers in better conditions. Packaging innovations involving different types of plastics have also allowed mushrooms to be delivered to consumers in fresher and more aesthetically-pleasing ways. Without these broader production and supply chain innovations, consumers would not be able to enjoy access to the growing variety of specialty mushrooms and truffles.
Though truffles remain especially difficult to cultivate, producers have recently found some success. It’s not just the French Perigords that have successfully been cultivated; farmers now better understand the climate conditions for truffles to thrive, as well as the soil pH levels, drainage conditions, and rainfall conditions. They also have a sense of the types of oak and nut trees that are most suited to truffle cultivation, allowing for much larger harvests.
Despite these improvements, the prices of specialty mushrooms and truffles are still quickly outstripping inflation in most countries, suggesting that demand has yet to be satiated. Given the inflated prices of the highly-valued crops and the recent yet minor successes in scaling their production, specialization appears the place to be for fungi farmers going forward.