May 17, 2019

The desperate, high-stakes business behind zombie mushrooms

Scientists are searching for solutions to address the shortage of mushrooms in the multibillion-dollar zombie mushroom industry.

Note: An original version of this article used an image from MycoSymbiotics. You can view it, along with his Cordyceps militaris cultures, here.

High in the Himalayan pastures of the Tibetan Plateau, hundreds of harvesters collect mushrooms that are used to make the smoothies Gwyneth Paltrow drinks “every morning, whether or not she’s detoxing” and the teas Tim Ferriss calls “a game changer in [his] night time routine.”

At $50k per pound, these marvelously marketed mushrooms are worth well more than their weight in gold.

But, as Atlas Obscura reports, a shroom shortage has kicked off a race to make more mushrooms — before it’s too late.

From traditional medicine to New Age wellness

Over the centuries, these magical mushrooms have gone by many monikers: cordyceps, yarsagumba, caterpillar fungus, Himalayan Viagra…

The mushrooms, which grow when zombie-like fungi colonize caterpillar corpses at elevations over 10k feet, have been used to treat impotence, cancer, and asthma in traditional folk medicine for thousands of years.

But when Chinese distance runners attributed their world record-breaking success to a diet of zombie shrooms in 1993, the mushrooms went mainstream.

A crisis of cordyceps

Thanks in part to their popularity among pseudo-shamans of Western wellness like Paltrow and Ferriss, the zombie-shrooms biz has ballooned to an annual industry of around $11B.

In many villages, zombie-shroom collection accounts for 80% of local income, and millions of merchants in Nepal, India, Bhutan, Tibet, and China rely on mushroom money to survive.

But there’s a problem: Due to changes in climate and overharvesting, the supply of undead shrooms is shrinking.

To collect or to cultivate?

Fifteen years ago, harvesters collected 50-250 shrooms per day; today most collect no more than 5.

With yields expected to drop further, many critics are calling for more sustainable harvesting techniques. So far, 3 Chinese labs have succeeded in cultivating the famous fungus — but they are keeping their success secret.

Now, the livelihoods of cordyceps collectors are in jeopardy. But many aren’t worried about lab-grown shrooms because they believe only wild shrooms offer the potent health benefits.

The only question is — will Paltrow and the Goop gang agree?

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