The Right Stuff #6 – Underground Fungi and the ‘Wood Wide Web’

The Right Stuff #6 – Underground Fungi and the ‘Wood Wide Web’

Why we need to spend more time and money looking beneath the soil.

Is the news getting you down? Old Rupert Murdoch and his mates got you feeling like the world’s going to tear itself apart at any moment? Fear not, for [my] new column The Right Stuff assures you of at least one thing: to kick that growing cynicism aside and join us on the highway to optimism – destination: Hope Town*. The Right Stuff is your weekly dose of the news you deserve; from the mouths of people you may not have heard before. I can’t guarantee it’ll always be sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, but life’s not like that either, is it? Arthur Miller once said that a good newspaper is “a nation talking to itself” The people you’ll hear from in The Right Stuff are speaking to us and all we’ve gotta do is listen!  

*Figuratively speaking, not that place in the Bahamas

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Why did the tomato hang out with the mushroom?

- Because he was a fungi.

*mind ticks over*

This week we’re heading off in a different direction: underground. What goes on under the ground is mostly out of sight – and for the vast majority of us – probably out of mind, too. As it turns out, below the surface there are incredibly complex networks of underground fungi – often dubbed the ‘wood wide web’. Okay, okay, hold up – I’m not tripping balls on mushies and trying to convince you of their infinite power. This shit is seriously interesting and it also holds incredible potential for our ability to grow food in the future.

These vast underground networks of fungi are much like any other plant in that they produce fruit. In this case we call the fruit a ‘truffle’. Now when I say truffle, what springs to mind? I tend to imagine a sweaty chef with a furrowed brow, carefully grating a tiny brown object onto a plate in an expensive restaurant kitchen. What's on the plate looks more like a piece of abstract art than something edible. As you may be aware, edible truffles are in high demand and fetch an exorbitantly high price; often over $1000 per kilogram. There is now a significant truffle industry in parts of Tasmania and Western Australia. But these truffles aren’t actually native Australian varieties and they’re not really that crucial for our future survival.

It’s the native species of underground fungi and truffles that are important. Mycologist James Trappe reckons that around 95% of all vascular plants – basically most of the plants you’d notice in your day to day life – rely on underground networks of fungi to survive. The underground networks of fungi tend to have a pretty friendly relationship with the roots of vascular plants (known as a symbiosis). Why is this important? Well, it basically means that our ability to produce any food source is heavily dependent on what lies beneath the ground – the ‘wood wide web’ I was talking about earlier.

To better understand the potential of these underground networks - and to harness their power – we would need to fund research by giving money to places like the CSIRO. Here’s something worth noting: Trappe (who’s American) looked into the cost to US government of producing one nuclear submarine – submarines which we also decided it would be a good idea to build. He estimated that the cost of one of these submarines could fund mycological research in the US for the next five hundred years. Priorities, eh?

Out of sight can often mean out of mind - it’s totally understandable that we don’t often stop to consider what goes on underground. But with the onset of climate change and its consequences for Australia; less rainfall and longer, harsher droughts, maybe it’s time to shift our thinking?

Instead of mining the absolute crap out of places like Nauru for superphosphates to use in agriculture, we could tap into the power of these underground networks to develop sustainable agricultural practices for the future. Eventually our lives may literally depend on it. 

The Eco Truffle – Radio National

Fantastic Fungi – Kickstarter Project for a film about the importance of fungi

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