Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Mushrooms and Sustainable Development

We're living in a time of large-scale paradigm shifts, motivated by unsustainable lifestyles and skyrocketing consumption trends. I propose that we grow mushrooms in cities as a method of limiting the environmental and economic costs of urban waste export and food import.

First let's take a look at the earth's status quo:

Around 1990, humanity's total ecological footprint exceeded the earth's biological capacity, meaning that it took longer than a year to regenerate the resources used in that year. By 2002, it took 14 months for the earth's biosphere to generate what was used in 12 months. We are on a collision course with resource exhaustion: future modes of production and resource management need to be sustainable.

There's another key piece of the global consumption picture: consumption rates are drastically higher in first world countries. "North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia consume resources like oil and metals, and produce wastes like plastics and greenhouse gases at about 32 times the rate that those resources are consumed in the developing world" (Jared Diamond, January 2, 2008, NYT). If China caught up with the U.S.'s consumption rate, world oil consumption would increase by 106 percent and metal consumption by 94 percent. (Diamond)

Wackernagel et. al. argue that "the global effort for sustainability will be won, or lost, in the world's cities". In 2008, for the first time ever in the history of humanity, more people lived in cities than in rural areas. We need to design the cities of the future, the survival of our species depends upon it.

Urban mushroom farming can greatly limit the need to import food, and export waste from cities. Here's how it works:

Since mushrooms are not phototrophic organisms, they don't need much light to thrive. This is important because it makes them easy to grow indoors. Mushrooms, like all fungi, are the major decomposers. As such, we can use them to break down some of our trash and turn it into useful, locally grown, organic food.

Oyster mushrooms happily grow on spent coffee grinds and cardboard, utilizing the organic materials which would otherwise be shipped to a landfill.

The concept is to create a partially closed ecological loop within the urban landscape, by taking readily available waste materials: spent coffee grinds, cardboard, etc... and converting the latent energy into a food with a protein-rich nutritional profile, and one that may have cancer-fighting properties. Oyster mushrooms are delicious, and an expensive delicacy, currently sold for around 15 dollars a pound. But they could be a cheap, readily available food, consumed in the same neighborhoods they are grown.

With simple laboratory equipment and climate control, these mushrooms can be grown in any space. There's no reason a city like New York, which spends around 300 million dollars a year on waste processing and shipping, shouldn't divert some of its budget to constructing mushroom-facilities.

Urban mushroom farms are the waste processing and food production centers of the future. What are we waiting for?