The government must embrace fungi

| 17th July 2020
Wild mushrooms
Agroecological science must be at the centre of the Agriculture Bill.

The Agriculture Bill exposes a profound misunderstanding of fungi among government. This could have real world implications for farmers. 

Fungi are barely mentioned in the Agriculture Bill debated in the House of Lords yesterday. So I moved 10 amendments related to this one simple confusion in the draft legislation which talks about plants and animals, but makes little reference to fungi.

I may quite often say in the House, tongue-in-cheek, that I am sure the government will agree with me. But in this case, I will say it with absolute sincerity.

I am sure the government wants our legislation to be scientifically literate. And as this legislation currently says in one place “for plants read fungi”, it is currently not. It is like saying “for apples read pineapples”.

Confusion

And this is something very easy to fix – and would have the added virtue of legal clarity. You might recall the arguments about the classification of Jaffa Cakes as cakes or biscuits with regard to the levying of VAT. We don’t want to see similar in relation to support for farmers and growers under this bill.

I have to credit the campaigning group Plantlife which identified this issue for me and did all of the fine-comb work to produce these amendments. I have also worked with them on an amendment to protect meadows and other semi-natural grasslands, No 117.

I will have perhaps be contributed to successful answers to pub quizzes around the land by noting that there are three kingdoms in the living world, plants, animals and fungi, which together make up the eukaryotes, the organisms with complex cells with features such as mitochondria and nuclei.

But fungi are closer to animals than plants, and they are not producers of energy but use external sources of it – indeed the world would be very soon covered in undigested waste if they did not.

And, as I suggested, the House – and the government - needs to consider why we have the current confusion in the Bill. The importance of fungi is grossly understated, and still little understood.

Blowflies

We do know that they are locked, in healthy soil, in an immensely productive, complex nutrient exchange system with plants, soil bacteria and other organisms. Indeed it is not going too far to say that plants manage the ecosystem around them.

Up to a third of plants’ products of photosynthesis feed fungi and bacteria in the soil. You just need to look at the relationships between bacteria that help mycorrihizal fungi use their hyphae to seek out and scavenge particularly biologically valuable elements, like phosphorus, from rocks or decaying organic matter.

I asked Twitter which fungi I should mention in the speech, since we know from fauna that a few charismatic mega-species can be great ambassadors for the natural world. A range of mycologists leapt in to offer suggestions.

To start with the familiar, I knew of course of fly agaric, the fairy tale favourite of red and white, but hadn’t realised how crucial it is to the growth of birch trees in particular.

I was also pointed to Phallus impidicus. (In the interests of not breaching rules on unparliamentary language, I won’t mention some of its common names), which I learnt is thought to have a close ecological relationship with badger setts, its scent attracting blowflies which quickly clean up the bodies of badgers that most typically die underground.

Permaculture

And if we’re talking charismatic, who could leave it the largest organism in the world, a honey fungus that measures at least 3.8km across – in Oregon – that is estimated to be up to 8,000 years old.

In other parts of the debate on the Agriculture Bill, we have heard speakers imagining the countryside operating like a giant, human-directed machine, buzzing with robots, the ecological balance tweaked at every turn by chemical pesticides and herbicides and artificial genetic modification.

That approach is so very 20th-century. So very stuck in a simplistic understanding of soil being like a sterile petri dish, a vision in which the land operates in neat straight lines, and under absolute tidy control. It is a profoundly faulty vision.

It is a vision in which the biology, the amazingly sophisticated, effective mechanisms by which nature has developed systems as complex and varied as the Amazon rainforest, weird and wonderful life of deep sea ocean vents, the fast-flowering wonder of the Australian desert when it rains, is a problem, not the solution.

Working with biological systems – seeing what they can do when allowed to flourish – is the approach of agroecology and permaculture, an approach that the government has said in its rhetoric it wants to adopt, but has yet to include in the main parts of the Agriculture Bill.

This Author

Natalie Bennett is the Green Party peer.

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