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Understanding fungi is vital for our lives.. and the environment

PUBLISHED: 12:07 29 January 2009 | UPDATED: 15:52 07 September 2010

With fungi having an impact on crops and even aircraft fuel, professional mycologists are more important than ever, writes BOB GILBERT My children received a very late Christmas present in the shape of the Usborne Spotter s Guide to Mushrooms and Fungi.

With fungi having an impact on crops and even aircraft fuel, professional mycologists are more important than ever, writes BOB GILBERT

My children received a very late Christmas present in the shape of the Usborne Spotter's Guide to Mushrooms and Fungi.

It was sent to us by an Islington friend, who also happens to be the author, and this connection with a mushroom expert, at least at children's level, reminded me of recent news items about the apparent "crisis in mycology".

Mycology, as you will have guessed, is the study of fungi and it appears that professional mycologists are now in very short supply. According to one account, the number of specialists in the field has dropped from 24 a few years ago to the current figure of eight.

Such is the concern arising from this that it even featured on the Today programme one morning in December.

You may well be wondering by now what all the fuss is about.

Why would it matter, in the end, if mycologists were to follow so many other species into extinction? There are, after all, no end of us amateur mushroom hunters bumbling about in the woods each autumn.

The concern arises from the impact that fungi, in their thousands of manifestations, have on so many aspects of our lives and from our decreasing capacity to understand and respond to these.

High on the list must be the issue of crop protection as fungi attack a wide variety of our edible - and our forestry crops - as rusts, smuts, moulds, blights and in many other forms and can cause considerable problems in our wheat and rice crops in particular.

They are not just restricted to edible items. One species is now causing particular problems by its attacks on aircraft fuel.

But there is also any number of beneficent uses of fungi and of these we have only really just begun to scratch the surface.

They include medicines, for example, like the ergotamine that I used to have to take for migraine and which is based on ergot, the black smut of cereal crops that once caused St Vitus's Dance.

There are also new foodstuffs, like quorn, which is now such a regular part of many vegetarian diets that it is hard to remember it has only appeared in the course of my lifetime.

There are an incalculable number of other applications of fungi - to medicine, food and industrial processes - still waiting to be discovered and in a world of climate change and food shortages these could be more important than ever.

We seem to be in danger of losing them just when the world might be needing them most.

Like many others, I can tell an ink cap from a milk cap, can spot a boletus and a blewitt and know the difference between a field mushroom and a fly agaric. These field skills are something everyone ought to develop.

But they are a world away from the detailed and, literally, microscopic knowledge of the professional mycologist.

It may be something of a long shot but I can only hope that the Usborne Spotter's Guide is at this very moment inspiring a new generation to eventually follow this noble, and necessary, profession.


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