Gel-Suspended Mushrooms Could Save Us From Starvation

If we run out of phosphate fertilizer, it will mean bad things for our future eating. But giving our crops a fungus can help us stretch our supply.

Mycorrhizal root tips

The human race has a food problem. Readily available phosphate fertilizer—a mainstay of intensive agriculture—won't be around for long. That's because supplies of mined phosphate could peak by 2033, at which point the material will become both expensive and hard to find. The ripple effects of a phosphate shortage could be catastrophic. But part of the solution to our phosphate woes may come from an unexpected place: gel-suspended mushrooms.

The news comes from the University of Lausanne, where researchers have been looking at why a kind of fungus that lives symbiotically with plant roots (mycorrhizal fungi) causes plants to grow larger. The mushrooms are expert at acquiring phosphates from the soil. So the university researchers are experimenting with producing massive quantities of the fungus, suspending it in a gel for easy transportation, and then attaching the gel to needy crops in tropical areas, where plants have extra difficulty gathering phosphate from the soil.

And it works remarkably well. During testing on potato crops in Colombia, the researchers discovered that plants using the gel can produce the same yield of crops with half the amount of added fertilizer.

This is a promising sign: A lot of what you eat might be fungi-fertilized soon. But this won't solve the phosphate problem altogether. For that, we'll need an arsenal of potential fixes, including recycling human urine (a phosphate-rich substance) and homemade bone meal. Entrepreneurs, now is the time to make these solutions both viable and appetizing.

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • Brad Arnold

    By the way, here is why the reason fertilizer is projected to be scarce is that fossil fuel is used to produce it:  The Haber process, also called the Haber–Bosch process, is the nitrogen fixation reaction of nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas, over an enriched iron or ruthenium catalyst, which is used to industrially produce ammonia.The Haber process is important because previous to its discovery,
    ammonia had been difficult to produce on an industrial scale, and
    fertilizer generated from ammonia today is responsible for sustaining
    one-third of the Earth's population.
    It is estimated that half of the protein within human beings globally
    is made of nitrogen that was originally fixed by this process, the
    remainder was produced by nitrogen fixing bacteria.


    In other words, with a clean and cheap (less than one cent per kilowatt hour) energy source, the Haber process will replace any other form of fertilizer production.

  • Brad Arnold

    Soon food won't be a problem.  Check out this:
    The Rossi E-Cat has been publicly demonstrated too many times in front of too many experts to be a fake.  Turns nickel and hydrogen (under 16 bars of pressure, heated to 500F) into copper and a lot of excess heat.  Plug the Rossi E-Cat into your wall socket and get 30 times the energy you put into it.

    The reason fertilizer is projected to be scarce is that fossil fuel is used to produce it.  With energy at less than one cent per kilowatt hour (as opposed to coal, the next cheapest, which is at least 5 cents per kilowatt hour), we can produce (and transport) as much fertilizer as we want cleanly.  By the way, for you doubters, there is now a factory in Florida which is producing the E-Cats, and there will be several power plants using the technology by year end.  Next year they are projecting 300,000 units produced (and obviously they will fly off the self).