Part of the challenge, says Bayer, is to focus on areas where mushroom-based products can add value and be cost competitive, rather than trying to use them for everything. Attempting to displace throwaway plastic-foam cups ― mass-produced on an epic scale and value-engineered to be extremely cheap ― is a nonstarter, for example: "It's a horrible application for our technology. [It's] never going to be competitive. So someone else has to solve the cup problem," he says.
But even when they believe they have the right solution, some startups have found a lack of appetite for investing in new products and processes in incumbent industries.
Life Cykel is an Australian company that started out growing gourmet mushrooms off of waste coffee grounds collected from local cafes and has since expanded into the health field, with a range of mushroom extracts that claim to boost immunity. Customers include elite athletes and bee farmers, who feed the extract directly to their bees.
Company founder Julian Mitchell believes Life Cykel could also help tackle the problem of waste in the fashion industry. In small-scale trials, he says, the team has successfully used mushrooms to break down discarded clothing. But Mitchell says that scaling this to the point where it could have an impact would need much greater investment from clothing companies ― and commitment to solving their waste problem ― than is currently visible. "It comes down always to capital investment and are those companies prepared to invest in that or are they happy just to send it off to landfill?"
Udeme John Dickson, an environmental scientist at Nottingham Trent University in the U.K., has observed a similar challenge in the area of mycoremediation ― the use of fungi to break down pollution in soil or other environments. The idea that the all-consuming hunger of fungi can be harnessed to clean up waste already polluting land and waterways has excited scientists for decades. But Dickson says the remediation industry has so far failed to invest in refining the method to the point it can be widely commercialized.
Both Mitchell and Dickson would like to see higher levels of government intervention to incentivize corporate investment in fungi-based approaches — such as higher taxes on dumping waste in landfill.
But others believe a more radical restructuring of our global manufacturing industry ― one that takes power away from big companies ― may be required to create a world where mushroom-based products flourish.
Rather than "locking down" knowledge and production in the hands of a few companies, says Alysia Garmulewicz, a professor of the circular economy at Chile's University of Santiago, it would be much better to have a global network of local producers, sharing recipes and making materials from locally abundant resources. This, says Garmulewicz ― who is also co-director of Materiom, a platform providing open data on materials made from renewable resources ― would accelerate the spread and use of more sustainable approaches.
"I think that's a mindset shift that needs to happen. Rather than thinking, this is going to be the next thing that takes us to a huge scale commercially, and we'll create this massive plant that's going to produce it for everybody, we need to think about disseminating the knowledge so that people in many locations can start making it," Garmulewicz says.
It's a massive leap from where we are today, but the approach of some startups suggests they are beginning to think along these lines. Rather than setting up its own production facilities overseas, Ecovative, for example, is training others and licensing them to produce mushroom packaging themselves.
"Ecovative isn't a company that can go set up a factory in France and hire French packaging salespeople ― we don't understand the culture, we don't understand the distribution, the supply chain, the language," Bayer says. "So what we're seeing is smaller, entrepreneurial packaging companies who come to us and are setting up those sites. I feel like we're on the cusp of an explosion of this."
McCoy meanwhile says communities can start getting benefits from fungi without waiting for the market to develop fully. Grassroots groups, for example, could get together and work out how best to use mushrooms to clean up local pollution spots. He has started an online mycology school to help boost public awareness and bring fungi in from the fringe.
The more we talk about fungus and normalize it, the better, says McCoy ― "the more we say, 'Hey there, they're critical to the environment, they're fascinating historically and culturally. They're not weird.'"
This story originally appeared in HuffPost and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.